Peggy Heller (Judy Geeson) has just been married this past week to Robert (Ralph Bates), who is about to take up a new post at a private school for boys out in the countryside. But Peggy has had her problems, suffering a nervous breakdown six months ago, and though she thinks she is over it her psychiatrist is not so sure. Nevertheless, as she discusses her plans with her landlady (Gillian Lind) she grows in confidence, feeling a fresh start is ideal for her, and it's all going very well in her mind until she is left alone to pack, when suddenly there is a black-clad figure behind her, grabbing her around the neck until she is able to wrench off his false arm. But then she is hit on the back of the head, knocking her out - what's going on?
It's not the one armed man who caused Dr Richard Kimble so much grief in long-running television series The Fugitive, though director Jimmy Sangster's script, with help from Michael Syson, appears to have the same jumping off point, as what this was more indebted to was the French classic Les Diaboliques. There were a whole rash of these imitators produced in the wake of the Henri-Georges Clouzot suspense thriller, though the most obvious connection, the setting of a rundown boys' school, was actually dreamt up ten years later for the screenplay had been sitting around in the vaults of Hammer studios for a while until a method was found to bring it to the screen. The results arrived just as the company was beginning to struggle in the marketplace.
Fear in the Night did nothing to improve their fortunes, but it received fair reviews and those who did see it found it satisfying, if a shade modest. Geeson was a decent damsel in distress, if playing out the even by then overfamiliar "they won't believe me!" role where you could pretty much anticipate that her apparent hallucinations where she is attacked by the one armed man can be confirmed as the real deal well before the end of the movie. Once Peggy accompanies Robert to the school, she likes the Tudor house they are moving into, but has her doubts about the larger building where the boys are, mostly because there are no boys to be seen, though they are heard, leading to perhaps one too many sequences of Geeson wandering around.
And getting spooked in the process, as there was a neat atmosphere of eeriness, especially when Peter Cushing's apparently avuncular headmaster shows up, the only member of staff Peggy meets aside from her husband of course. One scene where he unties the headscarf with what turns out to be a prosthetic arm is patently designed to set alarm bells ringing in the minds of the audience, and is notably effective for that as well, but Cushing had by this point played so many horror characters both on the side of good and backing evil that you're not sure how to read his actions. Could he be the attacker? Or is that too blatant an attempt to fool us? Or could that be what we're supposed to think? And so on, leaving you either second-guessing the plot or going with the flow.
Either way, Fear in the Night was enjoyable if unavoidably minor in its ambitions - this was not going to make the major impact the French film had, and was too clearly a follower rather than a leader, which was a pity considering Hammer in its heyday was blazing a trail for horror and thriller filmmaking. At this point it was making far more profits from its sitcom adaptations, and you couldn't cast Peter Cushing in one of those, though aptly Ralph Bates, who the studio were pinning their hopes on as their next big star, went on to find great success in just that comedy medium the next decade with Dear John. The other significant cast member was Joan Collins, here trying out her flair for bitchy characters which in the same decade as Bates found a new lease of life, netted her an absolute fortune on American television. She is introduced shooting a rabbit Peggy has been admiring in the forest, which should tell you all you need to know. As it was, it wouldn't be anyone's favourite Hammer movie, but Sangster served up a reasonable diversion. Music by John McCabe.