Frederic Goode’s The Hand of Night is a particularly peculiar horror film, horrifyingly tedious, appallingly directed with utterly woeful acting, but somehow fascinating. Whilst trawling through the Talking Pictures schedules these past few months I appreciate that I’ve seen some really obscure films that I would otherwise not ever had the opportunity (or misfortune) to see, and The Hand of Night is one of the best/worst examples of this.
Its also an example of how we film fans can get caught out by movie-connections, usually attracted to films by the cast- in this case, the only reason why The Hand of Night caught my eye for recording/later viewing was William Sylvester in the starring role- Sylvester being familiar chiefly from 2001: A Space Odyssey and a few other genre films. The fall from grace of working on a timeless classic like Kubrick’s epic to working on this dismal horror effort must have been the equivalent of leaping off a cliff, but as I’ve commented before, every gig’s a pay-cheque.
So lets start with whats good about the film- well, its very odd, with a really bizarre film score attributed to someone named Joan Shakespeare which is alternatively spooky-weird or was composed for some other movie- it seems to either work incredibly well to maintain a dreamy aspect to the film or it just feels totally wrong. Clearly a product of the 1960s, it also strangely evoked the earliest film-scores of Vangelis (Sex Power, L’Apocalypse des Animaux and Ignacio) which was really disorientating for me, a reference likely lost to anyone unfamiliar with the Greek maestro’s early work. The title sequence is quite promisingly moody. The film is full of death references- Sylvester plays Paul Carver, a bitter, haunted man who has travelled to Morocco to see a doctor (who has unfortunately died when Carver gets there). Carver is either trying to get over the deaths of his wife and children in a car accident that he somehow survived three months before, or working out how to kill himself, its not entirely clear. On the one hand he makes for an interesting protagonist, being so wracked by guilt and self-pity. He befriends Otto Gunther (Edward Underdown) on his flight to Morocco- Gunther is an archaeologist whose project is a dig at a Moorish Medieval tomb, and at Gunther’s home Carver meets Gunther’s pretty young assistant Chantal (Diane Clare) who clearly takes an immediate shine to Carver. Chantal was the fiance of Gunther’s son before he died. So there’s this weird thing about Death through the film. Dead family, dead doctor, dead fiance, a tomb for a Moorish princess… Carver’s apparent death-wish stemmed from the guilt of surviving the crash that killed his family. So there is this subtext going on that made me think there was more to the film than seems on the surface, but, er, I was wrong.
Well, that’s the good, the bad about the film is pretty much everything else. The cast is pretty awful- I’m not certain if its bad casting (Underdown and Clare, struggling with bad accents, are either really bad actors or woefully ill-cast in material that doesn’t suit them), or the cast in general being hampered by really bad dialogue and direction. The budget was obviously slight, and although the location adds some exotica to the proceedings it is ruined by scenes obviously shot day for night, and editing that seems to slip day scenes into night scenes ruining even that ‘shot day for night’ material. The ‘villainess’ of the piece, the beautiful Marissa whose tomb it is that Gunther is excavating, is more succubus than traditional vampire (no fangs on display here), and is played by Aliza Gur with no sense of threat or danger whatsoever, crippling the film. She looks beautiful and mysterious but stumbles every-time she opens her mouth to speak -clearly Gur was a model more than an actress (she was Miss Israel in 1960), or perhaps she too was hampered by that dialogue and terrible lack of direction, not that she has to do much other than lounge on a divan sexily or stand, er, mysteriously. Diane Clare, who is really, really terrible as Chantal, apparently left acting altogether after this film. Clare appeared in The Plague of the Zombies and The Haunting and lots of other films and tv series prior to The Hand of Night so she must have been a better actress than this film suggests.
William Sylvester was mostly a tv actor, so The Hand of Night was one of his few film gigs; turns out 2001: A Space Odyssey really was the oddity in his career, notable by its exception, so that shows where movie connections gets you, watching films like The Hand of Night. There’s nothing in this film that suggests that Sylvester merited a successful career in films- while he handles the haunted, guilty aspect of Carver very well, its the romantic and physical stuff here that displays his limits. He has no chemistry at all with Clare (and he’d have to be some kind of eunuch not to have some chemistry with the sultry (albeit wooden) Gur), but for most of the film he seems a duck out of water.
Not that the film could have been saved by a better lead. This film was pretty broken at the script stage and the director clearly wasn’t particularly enthused by it. Some b-movies can’t help but seem terribly cynical affairs, woefully short of any ambition. Sometimes they can be genuinely interesting and daring, but this isn’t one of them.