Friday, October 5, 2012

Never Moor!: "The Night Has Eyes" (1943)

This British entry has everything a classic horror film should- a young heroine, an isolated mansion with a secret room, a moody leading man, shadows, a driving rain storm, fog, and a twist ending you never see coming. Too bad this is not a horror film, per se.

Girls' school teachers Marian (Joyce Howard) and Doris (Tucker McGuire) decide to take their holiday in the picturesque Yorkshire Moors. Marian has a personal interest in the gloomy place since her best friend Evelyn disappeared there a year before. Doris and Marian meet cute doctor Barry (John Fernald) on the train trip up, and he falls for the mousy Marian over the crass Doris.

Barry drops the women off on their hike. The moors are full of bogs and quicksand, and wandering around in them when a fierce storm kicks up his not a good idea. The women find a house in the middle of nowhere inhabited by the chronically depressed Stephen (James Mason). He is a jumpy composer shell shocked from the Spanish Civil War, and not used to company. He seems to know a little about Evelyn's disappearance but wants the two women to leave as soon as possible. They do, but Marian returns, having fallen in love with the bitter man.

At this point, Stephen's house keeper and former war nurse Mrs. Ranger (a fantastic Mary Clare) and simple minded handyman Sturrock (Wilfrid Lawson) get back to the isolated house. Both look after Stephen, who seems to need some special tablets every time the full moon rolls around. Marian moves in, befriends the staff, coaxes Stephen out of his shell, and discovers the truth about Evelyn's disappearance.

This film is difficult to categorize. It is not out and out horror, despite its familiar trappings. The dark cinematography immediately brings Val Lewton's name to mind. You could refer to it as a Gothic romance, up until the stunning last plot twist that I did not see coming. Either way, the suspenseful elements work for the most part, but there are problems.

Director Arliss handled scripting duties from a novel, but should have tightened some of the plot points up a bit. The character Doris turns from a fun party girl into a first class bitch immediately, and I cringed with every scene she had in the dark house. The number of times Marian leaves then returns to Stephen bordered on running gag territory, not smart in a drama. The cast does very well with their characters, especially Clare, and like I said, the ending is a stunner.

"The Night Has Eyes" will hold your interest, mostly because it cannot seem to make up its mind on where it wants to go. It's like getting lost in the country in a luxury car. You just go along for the ride without any anxiety about getting back. (* * * *) out of five stars.