Color, 1977, 73 mins. 16 secs.
Directed by E.W. Swackhamer
Valerie Harper, Richard Romanus, Nicholas Pryor, John Quade, Michael Tolan, Quinn Cummings, Dinah Manoff
Scorpion Releasing (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC)
Though she's best known in the pop culture pantheon as Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and her own spin-off series (as well as her turbulent later sitcom Valerie which morphed into The Hogan Family), the late Valerie Harper also carved out quite a niche as a TV terror star with a clutch of superior chillers for the small screen including Don't Go to Sleep, one of the very greatest of them all, and the underrated The People Across the Lake. The first of them all, Night Terror, began life under the name Night Drive and makes for the finest showcase for Harper overall, putting her center stage for the entire running time apart from a brief prologue. At least on paper this seems like an imitation of earlier made-for-TV classics like Duel and Dying Room Only, but it ended up far exceeding expectations with its two leads delivering indelible performances that helped this stick in the minds of generations of viewers.
Somewhere in the middle of the desert, a nameless psycho (Romanus) with a voice box and a gigantic chest scar is running around doing target practice with road signs. Eventually his path will cross with harried housewife Carol Turner (Harper), who's packing up her family for a big move from Arizona to Denver. Her rather condescending husband in the usual Wait Until Dark tradition, Walter (Tolan), has to go out of town for a work conference, leaving her to get the kids sent off ahead of her to stay with family. That plan goes haywire when her son gets a serious infection in Denver and has to go to the hospital for an operation, and all flights have been canceled with the airport snowed in. That means Carol has to hop in the car for an overnight drive alone across the desert, which turns into a nightmare when she stops to ask a highway cop for help only for him to get fatally blasted by our anonymous psychopath. On the run for her life, Carol has to find previously untapped resources within herself as she tries to get help from other people she encounters but must ultimately face off against the madman herself.
Lean, mean, and effective as a pure tension vehicle, Night Terror manages to wring every bit of dramatic potential out of its austere desert setting. The string of gas stations and isolated homes gives the film an eerie feeling accentuated by the fact that the entire midsection takes place in the middle of the night, obviously, with a well-executed rainstorm providing the backdrop for a particularly nice Hitchockian sequence. TV fans will also get a kick out of seeing some familiar faces here including a little role for Dinah Manoff and, as Harper's daughter, a young Quinn Cummings, who would have her most famous role in The Goodbye Girl the same year and solidified her made-for-TV scare cred later on with 1980's The Babysitter and a solid episode of Darkroom.
Though not a ratings powerhouse, the film got a reasonably successful rerun later in 1977 and was padded out from its 73-minute running time to 89 minutes for syndication, so it could more easily fill out a standard movie time slot. The scene extensions mainly consist of more early domestic business, longer and additional phone calls once Valerie hits the road, and other random business with her trying to pull open locks and so on. The TV cut has much tighter pacing, but that longer cut is what we first got on VHS back in 1987 when it was released by WorldVision, the home video company created by this film's executive producer, Charles W. Fries. It's worth noting that the longer syndication cut is also missing some material from the TV cut including a nifty little shock jump, so it was nice to have that original broadcast version back in circulation when ownership shifted over to MGM in the '00s. A fresh HD scan started making the rounds including a brief appearance on Netflix and occasional airings on the MGM HD cable channel, but a home video release didn't come along until Scorpion Releasing issued it on Blu-ray and DVD distributed by Kino Lorber. As expected, this is the original 73-minute TV version, still looking quite nice here and much better than we got when it used to turn up over the air. Film grain looks natural, the dark scenes are crystal clear, and apart from some minor white specks here and there, the elements have been kept in good shape; that goes for the DTS-HD MA 2.0 English mono track as well, which comes with English SDH subtitles. A new audio commentary by the reliable team of Amanda Reyes and Daniel Budnik, who manage to load the compact running time with lots of info including stats about the ratings, the differences between the two versions, the interesting subtexts about Vietnam vets and gender stereotypes, and the credentials of the personnel including music composer Fred Steiner (Perry Mason). Also included are bonus trailers for The Chosen (a.k.a. Holocaust 2000), The Psychic, Rollerball, Trackdown, Slow Dancing in the Big City, and Last Rites.
Reviewed on June 6, 2021.