Director: Terry Bourke
Starring: Norman Yemm, Carla Hoogeveen, Briony Behets, Peter Armstrong, Mike Dorsey
Screenplay: Terry Bourke
Synopsis: A young woman (Briony Behets) out riding alone in the country ties up her horse and moves way to enjoy the view. A man (Norman Yemm) releases the horse and drives it away. The young woman pursues the animal into the bush, where she stumbles across a deserted house—and meets a terrifying fate… After meeting with her lover (Mike Dorsey), a woman (Carla Hoogeveen) sets out on the drive home. Both she and an oncoming truckdriver (Peter Armstrong) are driving recklessly, and the woman is forced off the road and down a rough track. She is able to restart her car and continues on down the dirt road, but another moment of carelessness leaves her with a slight head injury and the car in a ditch. The woman climbs out to recover—and soon finds herself running for her life…
Comments: I hesitated over reviewing Night Of Fear – or more correctly, trying to review Night Of Fear – but decided in the end that it would be wrong not to do so.
I spoke at length in the context of Homesdale and Wake In Fright of the efforts made during the early 1970s to revive the Australian film industry, which after thriving during the silent era had been killed off by the Depression and subsequently remained moribund, with only overseas production units and rare independents like Charles Chauvel making use of local talent in feature films, while all government funding remained focused upon documentary-making.
It was Peter Weir who managed to bridge the gap, after his success as a director of documentaries for the Commonwealth Film Unit saw him attract funding for more personal projects, which won both critical and popular acclaim and influenced the founding, in 1970, of the Experimental Film and Television Fund. This in turn paved the way for the Australian Film Development Corporation, a government organisation created specifically to encourage and fund the making of commercial Australian movies.
Perhaps the single most bizarre and interesting thing about this critical point in Australian cinema is that almost nobody played it safe. Instead of some cautious first steps, testing the waters and not rocking the boat (if you’ll excuse that slightly mixed metaphor), film-makers plunged into the production of a series of raucous, crude, violent and shocking motion pictures that were, on one hand, exactly what the government had asked for – they were unmistakably Australian – while on the other going out of their way to horrify and offend—and entertain, but somehow that seems a secondary consideration. It was the birth of what later became known as “Ozploitation”.
Born in 1940, Terry Bourke qualified as a journalist and spent much of the 1960s in Hong Kong as an entertainment correspondent, a position that allowed him (among other things) access to the sets of the Shaw Brothers. It also gave him a foot in the door during Robert Wise’s production of The Sand Pebbles, where he was given the task of looking after Steve McQueen while he was on location.
During this time he became friends with the American actor and voice actor, Jeffrey Stone (aka “John Fontaine”, under which name he voiced Prince Charming in Disney’s Cinderella). Bourke was subsequently responsible for raising most of the money that saw Stone embark upon his directorial debut, with the “disappearing film”, Strange Portrait. Shot independently and starring Jeffrey Hunter, the film failed to find a distributor and its ultimate fate is now a mystery. Some sources claim it was suppressed by the Hong Kong government due to some partial nudity; others that the negative was destroyed in a fire; but no-one seems to know for sure.
(Some of us would settle for seeing the apostrophe in the correct position.)
In any event, after years of looking in from the outside, professionally, Terry Bourke caught the film-bug. After securing an associate producer’s credit for Strange Portrait, he became involved in more Hong Kong-based productions in a variety of roles, including working as the production manager on The Million Eyes Of Sumaru. He made his directorial debut with 1968’s Sampan, about a young man who falls in love with his step-mother. The film was something of a succès de scandale, becoming the year’s most profitable film in Hong Kong but provoking outrage with what was apparently local cinema’s first breast-shot. The film was censored in some territories – including Australia – and banned outright in Taiwan: a reaction which perhaps lends credence to the suppression theory of Strange Portrait’s disappearance. Bourke subsequently teamed up with one of Sampan’s investors, Gordon Mailloux, a businessman and future politician, to make the first ever Guamian feature-film, Noon Sunday, about a pair of mercenaries.
(Bourke was not the first to shoot in Guam per se, however: he was beaten to the punch by Son Of Godzilla. Not that Noon Sunday is without some pop-cultural cred of its own: it stars Mark Lenard!)
Terry Bourke returned to Australia in 1971 and worked on the TV series, Spyforce, which starred Jack Thomson and Peter Sumner as military intelligence operatives stationed in the Pacific during WWII. After starting out as a second unit director and associate director, he was promoted to full director for a handful of episodes.
It was on the set of Spyforce that Bourke met editor Rod Hay, with whom he formed a business partnership. Together, the two pitched to the ABC the idea of an anthology horror series. The network was initially receptive, and a twelve-episode series to be called simply Fright was provisionally approved. Bourke and Hay then set to work filming a pilot episode, which was co-funded by the Australian Film Development Corporation, with the ABC itself providing equipment and facilities. The pilot was shot in the ABC studios and on location in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park to the north of Sydney over ten or twelve days (according to who you ask), and cost between $21,000 – $32,000 (ibid.).
Looking now at Night Of Fear, it is astonishing to think that Terry Bourke and Rod Hay ever imagined it would play on television. Don’t get me wrong: Australian television at this time was often remarkably unrestrained, full of violence and casual nudity; but this was something else.
The ABC executives, having viewed the proposed pilot episode, washed their hands not only of it specifically, but of the entire idea of a series. Worse was to follow: the producers took the inevitable step with a failed pilot and tried to sell it as a theatrical release—only to have Night Of Fear fall foul of the Australian Classification Board’s newly introduced “refused classification” category, on the unhelpfully vague score of “indecency”.
Bourke and Hay appealed the decision, which denied Night Of Fear a formal cinema release; and while the wheels of reconsideration were turning, they sidestepped officialdom by doing a deal with the Penthouse Cinema in the Kings Cross red-light district, where – despite the absence of the attractions offered by the films usually screened in this private cinema – it was successful enough to see the pair recoup their own investments in their production.
Eventually, the ban on Night Of Fear was overturned; and it was released to mainstream cinemas in 1973 carrying an R-rating. As usual, the censorship kerfuffle had stirred up publicity and interest; the film did well locally on the independent and drive-in circuits, in spite of its short running-time—and some other things.
It is interesting to note the critical response of the time. As you would expect, most of the mainstream critics disliked Night Of Fear, the most prominent being Martha DuBose of the Sydney Morning Herald, who sniffly dismissed it as an empty exercise in shock. (Of course, DuBose hated Wake In Fright, too, so Bourke and Hay were in good company.) A far shrewder reading of the film, balancing its shortcomings against its ambitions, came from the Sun-Herald’s Romola Constantino, who compared it to Straw Dogs.
These days, with the wisdom of hindsight, by far the most frequent comparison made is with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. More than one analyst has likened Night Of Fear to the final act of Tobe Hooper’s seminal horror film—only in making that comparison, we must keep in mind at all times that Night Of Fear got there first. In fact, we might be inclined to wonder whether Hooper saw Bourke’s film during its short American run during 1973. The two have more in common than just their central premise of a young woman being terrorised by a monstrous psychopath—namely that in both, it is the tone quite as much as the content that tends to upset people.
After all this, you may be wondering why I hesitated to review Night Of Fear; well, we’ll get to that in a moment. More important is the reason why I decided I had to: there were a few films produced during the silent era that had supernatural touches, but this is the first unmistakable, unabashed horror movie ever made in Australia; and never mind that it wasn’t meant to be a movie at all.
Night Of Fear is a few other things, however—a failed, pilot, as we have seen, leaving it with a running-time of only 51 minutes. It is also highly experimental: its characters are not named, being credited only as ‘The Man’, ‘The Woman’, and so on; and it has outbreaks of bizarre shock editing that, at the outset at least, tend to leave the viewer disoriented if not outright confused. And above all—it has no dialogue.
There are a few stray words here and there: the girl in the opening sequence makes noises of encouragement and then calls distantly to her horse, and a radio broadcast is briefly heard. There is some mid-coital murmuring, much incoherent grunting, and even more hysterical screaming; but no dialogue at all of the usual kind.
All these things together make this a challenging film to review, to put it mildly; hopefully you’ll understand and forgive me if I drop into “this-happens-and-then-that-happens” mode.
Night Of Fear opens with a fair-haired young woman riding her horse through an isolated bushland location. At the top of a rise overlooking a body of water, she dismounts.
We get our first cutaway here, an ominously simplistic shot of a man’s hand testing the blade of a large froe.
After tying up her horse, the young woman walks some distance from it to where she can enjoy the view of a body of water. Disembodied shots of the man again intrude: this time we his legs; he walks with a limp, possibly due to a cub-foot, and has a brace on that leg. Later we see that his face is badly scarred. He unties the horse and slaps it, sending it cantering away down the slope.
The young woman pursues the horse, chasing it finally into a dense patch of bush; she can hear it up ahead, but struggles to find it. More cutaways intrude: the man’s hand grasping a whip; a headstone; a console of some kind; the barrel of a gun. It is unclear at this moment what any of these have to do with the man, though a further insert later shows him loading the rifle. We are also given a clearer glimpse of the inscription upon the headstone, which is to mark the grave of a man named Charlie Zunter; or more correctly, Here lies Charlie Zunter and his dog.
The young woman pulls up abruptly at the sight of an old house buried deep in the vegetation. She is turning away when she hears her horse again. We see, though she does not, that it is on the other side of a high wire fence. She moves on, just avoiding a hand reaching out for her from the undergrowth…
The young woman walks hesitantly up the steps of the crumbling house and knocks on the door. As she stands there, the man approaches silently. Just too late, the young woman swings around. She screams and fights as the man grabs her; her clothes are torn in the struggle but this, evidently, is not his intent: he thrusts her through the doorway and into the house, slamming the door and locking her in. He then crosses to the console which we saw earlier, opening a small cover plate and pulling a handle attached to a long wire. From inside there is a creaking noise, perhaps of a panel opening…
The man then picks up his rifle and moves off. He shoots the horse; then he swings the froe…
And after this sometimes confusing, sometimes brutal sequence we get—the opening credits! These, in what for all Night Of Fear’s experimentation I feel is its one serious misstep, play over snatches from later in the film, and go so far as to give away some of its most shocking moments—robbing them of their later impact. They also retain the proposed series title, Fright; no-one involved had money to spare for re-shooting, I suppose.
A jolting cut then takes us away to another reminder that Night Of Fear was produced for television, and needed to fill a particular timeslot. Had this been made purely as the short film it resembles, it would surely have dispensed with the material leading up to the near-collision that sets the main plot in motion; but as it is, we look on as a man sleeps, and as a towel-clad woman steps out of the shower. She begins to make a phone-call, but stops as the man stirs—contenting herself with a wad of cash lifted from his drawer. She makes her call from a box outside instead, before driving off.
Our next insert involves a man waving goodbye to his wife and children as he sets off—but nor for work. He meets the woman at a tennis-club, where they do play a match; though the real point of the meeting is soon revealed as a naked roll in the bushes.
The tennis-match is intercut with scenes of the man fondling his pet, a white rat; the sex-scene, with further shots of the man forcing bloody chunks of something through the windows of what looks like a large doll’s-house. These shots persist through the subsequent scene of the woman parting from her lover and driving away.
We have also, meanwhile, been following removalist as he drives his truck from an unknown location towards Sydney. He and the woman have this in common: they are both reckless drivers, he keeping only one hand on the wheel, drinking a Coke and fiddling with the radio with the other; she speeding, and overtaking in a manner that puts others as well as herself at risk, and rarely bothering to stay inside her lane.
They meet on a high curve, both swerving desperately; the woman crashes through a barrier erected to prevent entrance to a rough dirt road running down the slope. The truckie pulls over and rushes frantically after her—arriving just in time to see her restart her car and, after being unable to get sufficient tread to reverse, drive on ahead. As he goes to turn away, his eye is caught by a piece of the broken barrier. Originally it read DEAD END NO WAY THROUGH; this piece simply says, DEAD…
The woman, meanwhile, has clearly not learned her lesson: she takes her eye off the road long enough not to notice the reason the track was blocked off in the first place, some large pieces of pipe and a deep ditch clearly intended to accommodate them. As the car’s front wheels drop joltingly into a ditch, the woman is thrown forward, striking her forehead on the glass and being left dazed and bloodied.
Black frames, presumable conveying her loss of consciousness, are now intercut with the man’s halting steps…
The woman pulls herself out of the car and onto the bank at the side of the road, where sits trying to pull herself together. She becomes aware of approaching footsteps and looks up, clearly hoping they mean help and rescue. A second look sends her scrambling back into the car. She tries frantically to lock the doors and wind up all the windows before the man can get there, and though she succeeds she must fight off his clutching hand first.
The man attacks the car from all angles, enjoying the woman’s terror even though he fails to break in. Finally he collects from the digging-site a shovel and a pickaxe; he swings the former at the windshield, shattering it.
Screaming the woman throws herself out of the car, holding off her assailant with the open door. Briefly evading him, she plunges into the bush. Shovel in hand, the man pursues her…
Running and hiding by turns, the woman tries desperately to elude the man, but to no avail. The chase finally leads her in a circle, back to her car. Exhausted, sickened by head injury, she is perhaps not up to the challenge of trying to run back up the track, back towards the road; or perhaps she is beyond such calculated thought. Instead she hits the horn of her car, in a last despairing effort to attract help—but only succeeds in giving away her position.
By this time, night has fallen. The man does not approach the woman, however. Instead he makes noises of his own, by running the shovel over small branches; shifting his own position, and then doing it again. He is, we realise with horror, allowing her to know where he is—in this way shepherding her towards the house.
Driven, though unknowingly, the woman does find the old house in the bushes. She recoils in horror from a series of mounted horse heads that hang from the wire fence, but her desperation pushes her to run inside. She locks the doors, and allows herself to believe that she has found a refuge.
With the woman’s entry into the man’s house, Night Of Fear takes a turn for the surreal. While no horror-watcher will have any trouble thinking of a raft of later films that this acts as a forerunner for, in addition to the ones already mentioned, from the moment we get inside the house there are numerous allusions to Psycho, including in the nasty form of some stuffed and mounted animals.
The production design here is brilliant—both horrifying and perversely funny, full of telling details of which only a few are highlighted. (Keep an eye out for the ceramic bunny that changes position – and expression – between shots.) We notice that every room is capable of being locked from the outside; not just locked, but in most cases barred. We might be inclined to wonder who used to be confined there; and, given the number of dolls scattered around, how long they were confined for. We might also wonder how long ago it was that Charlie Zunter – and his dog – died.
The woman moves cautiously through the rooms, disgusted by her surroundings but clearly still allowing herself to hope that might be able to barricade herself in and ride out the night. She finally slumps into a chair, overcome by exhaustion and, possibly, suffering concussion. Putting her head down on her arms, she drifts into unconsciousness…
It was certainly the following nightmare sequence that resulted in Night Of Fear being not only rejected for television, but initially banned from cinemas. The image being broken up by creepy, flash-cut editing, the woman imagines herself naked and bound by ropes to a table, as the man approaches, also naked—and with a bloody skull, long blonde hair still intact, positioned in front of his groin. The man smiles as he terrorises her with it; or, perhaps, makes an offering of it. Further flashes follow: the man in daylight, with his clutching hand; the newspaper clippings of violent crimes that adorn one wall in the house; and then the man pulling the woman’s legs apart…
The camera dwells for an ominously long moment upon the woman’s fair hair before she slowly comes back to consciousness—woken by the sound of someone trying to force a door. We follow the man’s halting steps as he moves from door to door outside the room in which the woman has barricaded herself, testing each lock…
The woman creeps around the room, backing away from each new noise and trying to judge the man’s position. When silence falls, her attention is focused upon a ragged curtain across the windows at one end of the room. As if compelled, the woman pulls it back. Sure enough, the man – his white rat still perched upon his shoulder – is leering in at her.
It is too much. Moaning and crying, the woman collapses—and then goes into screaming hysterics. Her mind may have snapped. She quivers and jerks, her eyes wild, as the man moves away from the window and she tries once more to judge his whereabouts from the sound of his steps.
We catch disturbing glimpses of his actions: he puts on leather gauntlets; he picks up a cage in which several cats are confined; he access the panel, and pulls the handle, as he did after capturing the girl…
A wooden panel behind the woman slides up.
And then the rats come…
Though it pre-dates most, if not all, of the better-known examples of the genre, Night Of Fear is one of numerous horror films that involve foolish city-dwellers getting off the beaten track, either accidentally or deliberately, and finding themselves in a nightmare. It even offers the usual class-war framework, with the man himself, dirty, dishevelled and solitary, living in squalor, blatantly contrasted with his middle-class victims—most overtly with the wry choice of a ‘members only’ tennis-club for the meeting of the woman and her suburban lover. In addition, the girl in the opening sequence can afford to keep a horse.
Night Of Fear also gives us not one, but two versions of the primal female nightmare: the girl attacked in a shock scene, given no chance to defend herself; the woman deliberately hounded and terrorised, driven into a corner and seeing her fate approaching.
What worries me here is the framework of the woman’s story. From the moment she first appears to that in which her reckless driving forces her off the road, she does nothing that is not some form of transgression—including several sexual transgressions. The intimation that she was “asking for it” seems disturbingly clear.
Of course, we might counter-argue that the girl in the opening sequence does nothing to “deserve” her fate. That, however, simply invites the still-more depressing reading that any woman who does anything alone is “asking for it”: a reading perhaps reinforced by the overt contrast of the woman’s red dress with the girl’s white outfit. The latter’s innocence, if we read it like that, does nothing to save her.
And in practical terms—in all red and all white, neither one has much hope of concealing herself amidst the greys and greens of the Australian bush.
It may not be so simple, however. We should be very clear that the sexual imagery is all in the woman’s head, prompted not only by her ideal but by a newspaper story about a rape case. Her eye picks out this particular clipping; the man is indiscriminate in his taste for violent crimes.
However, the man does take obvious pleasure in terrorising and tracking his victims; and though it is eventually revealed that his proclivities do not run to anything as mundane as rape, there is little doubt about the nature of the man’s excitement as he watches his plans for the woman come to fruition.
(Just keep reminding yourself, this was made for TV.)
In addition to its brutal treatment of its female characters, Night Of Fear is a difficult film to watch in terms of its animal characters—though in fairness, it turns out to be a film worse in anticipation that in actuality. The killing of the horse at the outset is offscreen and discreet; and while the series of horse-head trophies encountered by the woman (really only one, over and over) is distressing, it’s nothing remotely like what The Godfather served up the same year. (Hmm…) The man’s stuffed rats are also unpleasant, though the film invites us to see it as the preservation of his pets.
(The rats are real and plentiful. Evidently, while her encounter with them was being filmed, Carla Hoogeveen looked up to discover that Night Of Fear’s all-male crew had put distance between themselves and the animals by climbing up onto the furniture or in some cases into the studio rafters. And as would later be the case with Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, the production hands didn’t manage to recapture them all… Meanwhile, the white rat that plays the man’s main pet gets billing in the credits.)
With all due apologies to the woman / Carla Hoogeveen, whose ordeal I dealt with fairly well, I must admit that I cringed back in utter horror when the cats in their cages made their appearance—but they are put to a purpose quite different from what we fear, play their own role in the resolution of the story, and are last seen safe and well (if still confined).
Night Of Fear perhaps makes a few missteps during that resolution, as it returns to “the real world”. In particular, a handful of almost-comedy cops, seen ineffectually studying the scene of the woman’s car-crash and even searching the man’s house, are jarringly out of place—and put me in mind of their counterparts in The Last House On The Left, also the same year as this, though they are nowhere near so damaging; and were probably intended merely as a wink at one of this film’s stars.
The man is played by Norman Yemm, who had a long acting career, predominantly in television, and at the time was best known as the buttoned-down Detective Patterson in the TV series, Homicide. He could hardly be further away from that career-establishing characterisation here. The man is a terrifying figure, much more grounded than his American cousin, Leatherface, but no less disturbingly relentless. All that said—his last few moments onscreen are open to interpretation.
It is harder to judge Carla Hoogeveen’s performance, given that she has little to do but run, scream and have hysterics (and of course get discreetly nekkid). She, too, went on to a substantial career; as did Briony Behets.
Terry Bourke’s direction of Night Of Fear is for the most part efficient, with a few striking touches—including the twin-framing of the woman and the man through the stacked pipes near the crash site, when they first lay eyes on each other. Rod Hay’s editing is perhaps over-insistent, though obviously this was a deliberate choice. The one thing that does seem out of place is the music, which was probably culled from the ABC stock-library. Actually, thinking about it, I’m surprised there is any music: given the other artistic choices here, it feels intrusive.
Though it turned out to be something quite different from what it was conceived to be, Night Of Fear is an important landmark in the history of the Australian genre film. With its willingness to take the gloves off, it paved the way for still more uncompromising cinema.