Friday, January 15, 2021

Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "Fright Night"

“Fright Night” is a really fun, often chilling Halloween-styled episode from the third and final season of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (1969 – 1973).  

In this story directed by Jeff Corey, a writer named Rick (Stuart Whitman) and his wife, Leona (Barbara Anderson) move into the home of Rick’s deceased cousin, Zachariah Ogilvy (Alan Napier). 

The house is completely furnished, but the former housekeeper, Mrs. Patience, won’t stay on the premises after dark. She also informs the couple that Ogilvy only left one instruction about their ownership of the home.  Rick and his wife are not -- for any reason -- to move the crate in the attic.  

That trunk is not to be moved, and under no circumstances is it to be opened.  Someone will come for it,” she insists.

Rick and Leona settle in at “this very strange house,” but notice something odd.  One night, all the crickets stop making noises simultaneously, as if silenced by an unnatural force.

And on another night, Leona is certain she feels the presence of somebody in bed beside her, despite the fact that Rick is typing away in the attic.  An indentation on his pillow suggests that Leona is not wrong.

Then, one morning, Rick finds that a Satanic prayer has been typed (all-caps…) onto his manuscript. As Rick and Leona grow more accusatory about who may have typed that particular incantation, Halloween arrives -- the one night of the year the dead can walk the Earth -- and Zachariah returns for his crate.

A few simple genre ingredients and a strong 1970s vibe transmit a sense of menace in “Fright Night.”  The narrative makes extensive use of the haunted house trope, which is often a cover, at least subconsciously, for stories of marriages in trouble.  

Consider the paradigm: happy couples move into a new house together, but the honeymoon is over, literally and metaphorically. Despite their new locale, their relationship disintegrates.  Is it their fault, or the house’s? 

“Fright Night” follows that established pattern, but not too aggressively, and focuses on some good, if somewhat familiar horror touches. For instance, the audience is treated to fearsome shots of a portrait -- Zachariah’s -- that seems to stare right through you, and whose eyes glow bright red at one juncture.  

Meanwhile, the crate in the attic seems to move frequently of its own volition. At one point, the trunk is opened, and psychedelic lights and shadows dance across the attic wall, playing out some ancient passion play about demonic possession.  

You’ve probably seen horror stories of this type many times before, but the direction is good enough that a tense atmosphere is maintained nonetheless. For instance, the first time we see the dusty attic, Corey’s camera tracks across the room at floor level, going slowly past empty chairs and wooden floor boards. The shot creates a sense of menace about what will be found there, in a place that has gone untouched for some time. And the shots of the crate veritably bouncing on the floor -- demanding attention -- similarly, increases one’s sense of terror about the narrative’s set-up.

Alas, much of the carefully-constructed horror is diffused when old Ogilvy shows up at the door on Halloween night to pick up his luggage. The visual presentation of this old crone is pure pulp comic-book, and in some sense ruins the atmosphere of dread that the episode seems to have been working towards.

 Beyond the grave there is no innocence,” one disembodied voice reports in the episode, and that seems abundantly true about “Fright Night.”  The episode generates suspense well, but seems frightfully outdated with the final appearance by its un-scary ghoul, who indeed resembles a trick-and-treater more than specter from beyond the grave.

The episode’s final bite -- that Rick and Leona have put the house on the market because Cousin Zachary promises to re-appear next Halloween for another crate -- is also anemic.  So “Fright Night” starts strong, due in part to its 1970s cinematography, but gradually loses its impact.  

It's funny to report, but the scenes that are so scary here involve those with no make-up or visual effects whatsoever, of that damn crate appearing where it has no right to be (and even after it has been locked away in the shed...). 

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