‘The Night Walker’ (1964): Well-crafted, gauzy, ethereal suspense

More 1960s vintage horror from William Castle.

By Paul Mavis

A few years back, TCM Selects and Universal released The Night Walker and Dark Intruder Horror Double Feature, including director William Castle‘s 1964 psychological horror murder mystery The Night Walker, starring Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck, and Dark Intruder, with Leslie Nielsen and Peter Mark Richman, an unsold 1964 television pilot produced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Shamley Productions/Universal which was deemed too violent for TV and was instead released to theaters in 1965.

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Beautiful, lonely, desperate Irene Trent (Barbara Stanwyck) is having dreams a married woman shouldn’t be having. The wife of fabulously wealthy inventor Howard Trent (Hayden Rorke), the couple live in a palatial mansion (the Higgins-Verbeck-Hirsch House for movie location fans) where Irene should be content, and not tortured nightly by frustrating dreams of an unseen romantic lover. Howard, however, is blind and psychotically jealous of Irene (he tapes all conversations in the home), not allowing her to leave the house. The only visitor she sees is Barry Moreland (Robert Taylor), the suave, handsome lawyer who watches over the Trent holdings.

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When Howard is blown up in a freak accident in his laboratory, Irene thinks she’s finally free of her husband’s insanely possessive grasp. She even tells Barry to sell the house, because she’s moving into the back room of the swank beauty parlor she owned before she met Howard. However, Irene’s nightly reveries of a “dream lover” don’t stop — they intensify, to the point where she meets “The Dream” (Lloyd Bochner), and even marries him in a bizarre, surreal ceremony. Did any of this really happen to Irene? Is she dreaming all of this? More frighteningly: has Howard’s corpse somehow come back to kill her?

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The Night Walker was the first of a new three-picture contract director William Castle signed for Universal after leaving long-time studio Columbia Pictures. It also reunited Castle with Psycho novel author Robert Bloch, who had just scripted for Castle a crude, lurid hit for Columbia and Joan Crawford at the beginning of 1964: Strait-Jacket. Castle, long-noted for hyping his horror releases with outrageous promotional gimmicks, dialed back any such ballyhoo for The Night Walker, feeling (incorrectly) that the notoriety of having huge star exes Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck reunited on screen after their last on-screen collaboration in 1937 (they had divorced in 1951), would be enough of a draw.

RELATED | More 1960s film reviews

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It’s always a guessing game as to why a movie doesn’t take off with the public, but The Night Walker failed to find the audiences that had flocked to Castle’s and Bloch’s previous outing. Was it overestimating the promotional draw of a Taylor/Stanwyck reunion (did Castle’s teen audience even know who they were?)? Was it the silkier, more reserved psychological tone of The Night Walker compared to Castle’s previous shock fests? Was it those confusing promotional posters featuring sensational-but-misleading artwork from Reynold Brown showing a hideous demonic creature about to devour a stacked blonde (none of which appears in the movie)? Or was it the middling reviews from the critics? Regardless, The Night Walker‘s failure at the box office signaled the beginning of the end of Castle’s ability to reliably deliver profitable horror pictures for his studios (its failure also convinced Stanwyck to quit feature films for good).

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A surprisingly languid, dreamy murder mystery masquerading as a horror flick, The Night Walker works overall despite a central problem at its core: we never quite believe that Stanwyck wouldn’t know she wasn’t dreaming during the villain’s “Gaslight” sequences (due to no fault of Stanwyck’s, though, who’s perfectly cast and who gives 100% here as only one of Hollywood’s golden age pros could). It’s not difficult to figure out fairly early who that villain is, or what all that “gaslighting” is in service of, but that’s never mattered in a solid, atmospheric mystery – style and ambience and suspense will always trump logic when we’re watching such a movie.

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Despite many critics frequently citing William Castle’s penchant for gimmickry rather than touting his directorial skills, Castle shows once again here his uncanny, unerring ability to craft an unsettling, nightmarish shock sequence. When he shows Stanwyck having her first extended dream sequence, the soundtrack suddenly drops out and it gets very quiet as Stanwyck fumbles through the smoky laboratory, perfectly replicating a nightmare sensibility, as the on-screen timeline seems to stretch out and then stop, before a half-melted Hayden Rorke is revealed, and Stanwyck, the great star that she was, unleashes these absolutely unhinged screams that jar the viewer in a most unnerving way (when Castle re-starts the dream again, and has Stanwyck flip out, screaming, “I can’t wake up!” over and over, the effect is electric).

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Castle tops himself with the surreal “dream” sequence wedding, shot with his assured, even peculiar precision, as off-kilter shots of a waxwork minister and witnesses speak without moving their mouths, slightly bobbing back and forth to weird effect. Scripter Robert Bloch, borrowing moments from Hitch’s Psycho (the mansion’s staircase) and reportedly his favorite movie, Les Diaboliques (the literal “unmasking” of the villain), crafts a story right in line with Castle’s usual preference for an earthly venality-over-supernatural twist. Castle maintains a slow, steady, measured pace that’s rather brilliantly complemented by composer Vic Mizzy’s feline, playful harpsichord-laden themes. It may not be the kind of “horror” many new audiences prefer today, but The Night Walker is an unusually well-crafted bit of gauzy, ethereal suspense.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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