Adventures in Home Viewing: "The Night Walker" (1964)

Adventures in Home Viewing: "The Night Walker" (1964)
Original lobby card for "The Night Walker" (©1964, Universal Pictures).

 

William Castle’s Rosemary’s Baby.

The phrase suggests something far different than the masterpiece directed by Roman Polanski. Maybe “Devil Diapers” given to expectant mothers in the audience or Minnie’s Vitamin Drink served at the concession stand? But the often-overlooked Castle film, The Night Walker, may give a small hint at what the showman of low-budget horror might have given us, had he made the movie instead of Polanski.

Beloved by moviegoers who grew up with his gimmick-driven films, as well as later generations who discovered them on TV and video, William Castle largely embraced a career built on ballyhoo. Yet underneath his good-natured hucksterism (his memoir was titled, Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America) was a veteran filmmaker who wanted to be taken seriously.

He had certainly paid his dues. At Columbia Pictures, he worked his way up to directing second features intended to fill out double-feature programs (called “B” movies before that term was applied to any low-budget genre film), including many westerns and several of The Whistler mystery series, based on the popular radio show. He had also served as an associate producer on Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai (1947) and may have contributed to the script, depending on whose account you believe.

He found success as an independent producer-director after mortgaging his house to pay for 1958’s Macabre. He hyped the movie to box office success by including an insurance policy against “death by fright” with every ticket sold.  Stunts of that kind propelled many Castle films, including “Emergo” (a skeleton on a wire that flew over the audience) for The House on Haunted Hill (1959) and “Percepto” (seat buzzers) for The Tingler (1959).

Barbara Stanwyck, Lloyd Bochner and director William Castle on the set of "The Night Walker."

Barbara Stanwyck, Lloyd Bochner and director William Castle on the set of "The Night Walker."

Castle’s best films were fun, well-paced entertainments, albeit sometimes hampered by low-end production values and cheese-packed screenplays. As a director, Castle was efficient but didn’t seem to even aspire toward artistry with a capital “A.” Yet he had rubbed shoulders with Welles, and his highly enjoyable trailers—where he would appear as cigar-smoking host, often seen first in silhouette—signaled more than a little Hitchcock envy. (Castle would rip off Hitchcock blatantly for big moments in Homicidal, Strait-Jacket and I Saw What You Did, but Hitch reportedly decided to make Psycho after seeing the success of Castle’s films, so perhaps there was a measure of unspoken mutual respect.)

Castle’s aspirations for industry respectability led him to purchase the film rights to Ira Levin’s novel, Rosemary’s Baby. However, that expenditure left him with little bargaining power when Paramount agreed to let him produce, but not direct the film. It was, of course, a rare case when the suits at the studio were right. For all his crowd-pleasing ability, nothing on Castle’s resume suggests he could have come anywhere close to the visionary style Polanski brought to the film.

Still, The Night Walker does hint that his version might not have been an outright disaster. While certainly a lesser Castle film, lacking the popcorn theatrics of his best-known movies, this odd little feature does have moments where a more somber, weirdly atmospheric aesthetic emerges than you might expect. Its better scenes suggest some of the mixture of the dark and melancholy that Val Lewton brought to his cycle of RKO horror productions (especially The Seventh Victim and Isle of the Dead), though it’s not as accomplished as those films.

As he did with Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket and I Saw What You Did, Castle found in Barbara Stanwyck an actress past her Hollywood prime, but still with some marquee value to exploit. Stanwyck plays the wife of a wealthy, blind scientific entrepreneur (Hayden Rorke, later of I Dream of Jeannie fame, under some bad makeup and “blind” eyes), whose death in a lab fire seems to free her from his jealous, possessive ways. But the widow’s earlier dreams of a mysterious lover (Lloyd Bochner) are now intruded upon by surrealistic nightmares in which her deceased husband reappears and the once welcome dream lover takes on a more menacing presence.

In a bit of novelty casting, Stanwyck’s former husband Robert Taylor plays the lawyer managing her estate who also has romantic feelings for her. As she shares seemingly too-real details of her nightmares with him, the lines between dreams and reality become less clear.

What’s works well in The Night Walker are the more visually ambitious moments. A tracking shot moving through empty hotel hallways as Stanwyck recounts a dream has an elegant flow and fittingly strange, remote feel to it. And the use of a huge hole in the floor of the lab where her husband died becomes a pretty compelling metaphor for the dizzying connections between real life and dreams.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot that doesn’t work so well, including long stretches of awkward, exposition-heavy dialogue and “real world” scenes that have the flat look and high-key lighting of a lot of television of the era. The revelation of what’s really behind Stanwyck’s nightmares not only strains credibility to the maximum, but it diminishes the story’s notion that the dream world exists beyond subconscious imagination.

Screenwriter Robert Bloch wrote the novel Psycho, but had nothing to do with the screenplay for the Hitchcock classic. Castle may have been hoping for a little Psycho magic to rub off on this and Strait-Jacket (also scripted by Bloch), but the writing for both films is uneven at best.

The Night Walker’s flaws certainly outnumber its virtues. Yet it has moments that fascinate when seen as a sort of trial run for Rosemary’s Baby. A bizarre wedding nightmare, with not-quite wax figures as participants closing in on Stanwyck has something of the “Is this happening?” horror of the famous impregnation scene in Polanski’s film. And the overall feeling of something supernatural and conspiratorial lurking under everyday life is also there. Vic Mizzy’s creepy musical score is memorable as well.

Perhaps with a few more pictures made in this vein—and just slightly bigger budgets—Castle might have found his groove as a serious artist, as Roger Corman did with his Edgar Allan Poe films. We’ll never know, as The Night Walker flopped at the box office and the goofy (though enjoyable) teen-driven I Saw What You Did took Castle back in a much more lighthearted direction. And that’s OK. Truly great showmen are almost as rare as truly great artists, and William Castle could command the Big Top with the best of them.

The Night Walker (1964). Directed by William Castle. Written by Robert Bloch. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor and Lloyd Bochner. 86 mins.

You can rent The Night Walker on DVD in Chicago at the wild and wonderful Odd Obsession Movies or, for you old-school types, on VHS at Facets Multimedia.

NOTE: The Night Walker still seems to be in need of a proper DVD release, as many fans have complained about the image quality of a recent TCM/Universal MOD disc. The “gray market” disc I watched seemed to be a transfer of an older VHS release. It wasn’t an ideal way to see the film for the first time, but the pan-and-scan (the movie was released theatrically in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio) was subtle enough that I felt I could appreciate most of the film’s visual merits.

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