Dick Van Patten
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Violent Midnight (1964)
27th Mar 06
A Korean war veteran is suspected of brutal killings in a rural American town full of sexy female students.
Dark Sky's release of the Del Tenney-produced Violent Midnight is a very welcome addition to their burgeoning cult catalogue. This neat little thriller was released in 1964, just a few years after Psycho, to which it owes a fair amount of debt. It tells the story of Korean War veteran-turned-artist Elliot Freeman, under suspicion for brutal stabbings in the local area. First, Delores, a pretty nude model gets it shortly after her jealous rough 'n tough boyfriend and Elliot have a bar fight. The police suspect Charlie, the boyfriend, but Elliot suspects that he is more than capable of such brutalities - an impression underlined to us by his local reputation as a "one man army". Not only that, but it transpires that Elliot's rich father (who pretty much owned the entire town) went insane and was eventually killed in a hunting accident - an episode depicted in the opening scene.
Elliot is obsessed with the fear that he will inherit his father's mental illness. Soon, his sister Lynn arrives to stay with him while she attends the local college which seems to be brimming with delightfully playful, scantilly-clad young things who come on to the reclusive Elliot at any given opportunity. Meanwhile, Adrian Benedict - Elliot's lawyer - has great concerns about his client's sanity, a feeling reiterated by the murder of one of the local college girls infatuated with Elliot. Benedict is convinced he's guilty and takes him against his will to a psychiatric hospital but Elliot's innocence is clear only to him, and if he's going to stop his new girlfriend from being the next victim, he must escape. Fast.
Shot in crisp B&W, this economic little offering is fairly well-constructed and holds its small budget well. Occasional clips in the editing are easily forgiven when there is a genuinely well portrayed whodunnit scenario played with this much flair. Lee Philips does a fine job in the lead role as the "tense and sensitive" Elliot (he may be sensitive but he sure knows how to kiss serious ass) and is complimented by a solid supporting cast. The local college girls are a particular delight, with their swinging 60's sense of promiscuity, indicating the increasing permissiveness of the period.
Perhaps the finest aspect of Violent Midnight however is its well-written mystery. Just who is the killer and if Elliot is innocent, then why is he so secretive, so detached? A black-gloved killer with a knife and dark raincoat is on the loose, but wait - this is 1964! Violent Midnight anticipates the giallo films, before the day of the giallo. Or, to be a little more precise, at about the time as Maria Bava started dipping his bloody toe into the those conventions; the aesthetic of the secret killer, several suspects and stylised muder scenes.
These murder scenes are the element most blatantly inspired by the stylings of Psycho, with well choreographed / edited close ups of blood and skin intercut with violent silhouettes of knife action - the kind of screen violence that simply didn't exist before the Bates Motel. It's intersting to note how that film not only paved the way for further levels of stylised human violence, but also in how much flesh you could get away with showing. If only Janet Leigh knew how much influence the baring of her skin could have had back in 1960, because here, a mere 4 years later, the girls are not only wearing very little (and in the case of the nude model, even less), but look like they know what to do with it.
In summary, this may appeal more to black-gloved giallo fans, just to see a precursor to that loveable, stylish genre. Such are the sort of fans that will not be put off by a small budget and a lack of colour, but are no doubt well versed enough to guess who the killer is a mile off. Or are they?