Color, 1973, 90m.
Directed by Peter Sasdy
Starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Diana Dors, Georgia Brown, Gwyneth Strong, Keith Barron, Michael Gambon
Scorpion (US R0 NTSC), Trash Mountain (Japan R2 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

Available from Diabolik DVD

Nothing But The NightWhen the prominent and wealthy trustees behind an orphanage on a gothic island orphanage start turning up dead, people become suspicious that there may be a pattern to the murders. Even more dramatically, a bus carrying the orphanage's youngsters crashes under mysterious circumstances, with the driver badly burned despite the absence of a fire. Brought in by the investigating Colonel Bingham (Lee), dabbling criminal pathologist Sir Mark Ashley (Cushing) decides to use hypnotism to discover what really happened on the bus via the most direct witness, young Mary (Strong, a still-busy actress seen on the cult British TV show Shadows), whose convicted murderess mom Nothing But The NightAnna (Dors) is lurking around trying to find a way to get her daughter back. An inquisitive, strangely butch reporter (Brown) becomes entangled in the mystery as well, with a shocking and outlandish explanation waiting for the climax involving fireworks and a fateful bonfire.

Anyone remotely familiar with Lee's work will notice that this film bears more than a passing resemblance to another, much more famous fim he made the same year, The Wicker Man; both titles are deliberately paced procedural thrillers which veer into full-on horror territory only in their final reels, with protagonists meeting fiery ends under ironic circumstances. This one hasn't been treated remotely as kindly over the years, but it actually has a lot to offer if you're willing to settle in for the long haul and be rewarded with an outrageous, striking finale that shoves the story into a popular '70s subgenre. (Sorry, can't be more specific than that without definitely going into spoiler territory.) Lee and Cushing are fun toNothing But The Night watch as usual, while the hammy Dors (a staple of genre cinema around this period) makes for an ambiguous figure with possibly sinister motives. This also marked one of the later big screen horror efforts by Peter Sasdy, a TV-bred filmmaker who became one of Hammer's most promising '70s leaders thanks to his work on Taste the Blood of Dracula, Countess Dracula, and Hands of the Ripper before he veered into much loopier fare like The Devil Within Her. Sharp-eyed viewers will also spy a very young Michael Gambon, way before his days as Dumbledore, as a police officer.

This film also holds an odd place in the horror history books as the only completed venture for Lee's Charlemagne Productions, which was picked up for British release by Rank and barely shown in the US at all. Eventually it popped up on VHS from Monterey Video in an oversized box under the title The Devil's Undead, which raises expectations the film can't possibly begin to meet. TNothing But The Nighthe more poetic (but essentially meaningless) original title fits it better (and remained intact on its first, absurdly expensive DVD release in Japan), and the film eventually popped up in a remastered widescreen version on US cable channel Showtime and its various affiliates sporting an MGM logo.

That superior master appears to be the same source used for Scorpion's DVD, which is about as colorful and robust as this low budget and sometimes dark film could be under the circumstances; the daylight scenes appear to be crisp and satisfying, while the crucial final scenes are much clearer and easier to follow than the murky old VHS version. Don't expect the robust visual fireworks of the horror duo's more familiar Hammer fare; this looks more like an episode of The New Avengers, and under those circumstances it's just fine. Like Scoprion's other recent horror output, this is branded as part of "Katarina's Nightmare Theater" and features horror hostess Katarina Leigh Waters, who starts off immolating herself with birthday cake candles and then offers an informative, quick sketch of the film's history and principal players. Some step-through liner notes by Christopher Gullo praise the film's virtues and cover some of its unusual creation and a few memories from Strong and Sasdy, and the disc closes out with the fiery theatrical trailer and bonus ones for The Devil Within Her (of course), Humongous, Final Exam, and The Incubus.

Reviewed on 11/27/11.