Monday, January 04, 2016

Night Caller From Outer Space (1965)

Apparently, last Thursday was the fiftieth anniversary of the UK release of Night Caller From Outer Space (to give the film its full UK title, although, to be honest, every print I've ever seen gives the title as simply The Night Caller), a favourite British B-movie of mine.  Night Caller is one of those movies which doesn't have a particularly original basic idea or plot, has modest production values and has nothing flamboyant about its execution, yet has that certain 'something' which makes it linger in the memory and keeps drawing you back for repeated viewings.  Produced for the incredibly obscure Armitage Films (it seems to be their only credited production), its producers had a long track record in low-budget British crime movies and TV series, which might well explain why, in its second half, Night Caller seems to turn into a police procedural.  Indeed, Night Caller is very much a film of two halves - to be honest, it feels like two different films rather arbitrarily stuck together, but that's part of its charm and, ultimately, works to its advantage, with the sudden change of format giving the plot a new lease of life and presenting viewers with an intriguing challenge in trying to fill in the gaps between the two scenarios.

The film's first half is firmly in the mould of traditional British science fiction thrillers like The Quatermass Experiment, with a mysterious object being tracked as it enters the earth's atmosphere before apparently landing in some Home Counties heathland. The military are quickly mobilised to help scientist John Saxon and his colleagues Maurice Denham and Patricia Haines locate the object - which turns out to be a football-sized globe. Taken to the scientists' nearby installation, the globe begins to behave oddly, with Saxon and co quickly surmising that it is the receiving end of an inter-planetary matter transmitter. The question is, who, or what, is using it to materialise in the locked lab and prowl around the installation?  The answer seems to be someone with unusual feet (judging by the footprint he leaves outside a window) and a claw like hand, with which he tries to grab Haines.  This section of the movie culminates with the visitor returning via the globe, resulting in the death of Denham, who is observing it's operation.  The creature then makes its escape with the globe, amidst a hail of bullets put up by the soldiers guarding the installation, eventually stealing and driving off in a Jaguar.

The film now jumps forward, into what, at first, seems to be a completely different story, with Scotland Yard detective Alfred Burke investigating the disappearances of a number of young girls, always after the mysterious 'night caller' had visited their homes.  A link with the first half of the film is provided by Saxon's appearance, as he tries to convince the police that the 'night caller' is, in fact, the alien visitor, abducting earth women for nefarious purposes.  Eventually it is discovered that all the girls had answered an ad for photographic models in a magazine - the post box address is traced to a seedy Soho 'bookshop' run by Aubrey Morris' wonderfully outrageous old queen.  A trap is arranged for the 'night caller' when he is next due to collect his mail.  Haines, meanwhile, has unilaterally arranged her own ambush, having answered the ad and arranged a meeting with the 'night caller' at the shop at the same time.  In the ensuing conflagration, Morris and, quite shockingly, Haines meet sticky ends, before the 'night caller' escapes to abduct another girl.  The film then peters out into a car chase. with Saxon and Burke finally confronting the 'night caller' before he departs, with the latest girl, in his matter transmitter.  In a somewhat perfunctory climax, he reveals to them that he is from Ganymede and that his race need earth women to breed with and renew their gene pool, which has been mutated by radiation following a nuclear war.  After showing the earthmen his face - handsome on one side, bestial on the other - he departs.  And that's it.

All of which sounds pretty standard, low budget fare.  But Night Caller is much more than a sum of its parts.  Atmospherically and efficiently directed by John Gilling - one of British low-budget film making's 'stars', he is now best remembered for his magnificent back-to-back Hammer movies, The Reptile and Plague of the Zombies, but was prolific in a number of genres, professionally turning out efficient yet stylish supporting features with limited resources), it has a genuinely weird and pulpy feel.  The realistic looking settings - from the sterile-looking laboratories and faceless buildings of the first half's scientific installation, to the lovingly filmed grimy back streets of Soho and suburban homes of the second part - contrast unsettlingly with the alien intruder and his activities.  Gilling is helped immensely by an outstanding supporting cast of British character actors, who all give convincing performances, taking the material seriously and performing it straight-faced.  In addition to the sterling contributions of Denham, Haines, Burke, Morris and John Carson as an Army captain, Warren Mitchell puts in a tremendous performance as the father of one of the missing girls.  The broken backed structure and juddering plot, which, having unfolded at a measured pace, suddenly lurches into a hurried and frantic denouement, has always reminded me of one of those pulp horror novels turned out under house names by publisher's like Badger in the sixties: each author had a set number of words and frequently they'd realise that they were running out of their allocation mid-plot, leading to similarly hurried endings.  Which isn't surprising, as the film was based on a pulp science fiction novel by Frank Crisp.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the film is its attitude toward women who, with the exception of Haines, are portrayed as essentially passive victims - and she pays a high price for her independence and intelligence.  Before killing her, the alien tells Haines that he fears what he cannot control, and he cannot control an intellect he considers almost equal to his own.  Is the message that if women want to stay safe, they shouldn't exhibit their intelligence or stray into 'men's work' like science?  Not that they are safe if they don't - they get abducted by aliens for use in selective 'breeding programmes'.  Maybe we're meant to think that is their proper place.  Bearing in mind the relative intelligence of the film's script otherwise (in comparison to similar films of the era) , I'm inclined to think that this wasn't the intent and rather that the portrayal of women is intended to undermine the alien's claims of  the superiority of his civilisation - to him women should just be cattle, if the exhibit independence, they must be destroyed.  By contrast, the earth characters played by Saxon, Denham and Burke at least respect Haines and treat her as an equal.

Night Caller turns up regularly on Talking Pictures TV.  Unfortunately, they tend to show a garishly colourised version which destroys most of the atmosphere carefully built up by Gilling.  I'd urge anyone interested in seeing to instead track down a version in the original black-and-white.



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