Britsploitation from A-Z: N is for The Night Caller (1965)

30 Aug

In exploitation cinema film titles are rarely sacred.  Generally films are called whatever the distributor thinks will pull in the punters.  This can often lead to confusion as some films are known by a plethora of different titles, with nobody really sure what the ‘original’ is.  British film titles would often fall victim to American distributors’ desire for sensational titles.  If even an already pretty lurid title like The Blood Beast Terror had to be changed to The Vampire Beast Craves Blood for the film to play in the US, what hope did a low-key title like The Night Caller have? Renamed Blood Beast from Outer Space (the words ‘beast’ and ‘blood’ have always been classic exploitation standbys), it was advertised with a poster so utterly typical of b-movie marketing it looks like it’s been made up (pictured left).  The film completely fails to live up to this hype  – not because it’s not any good but because it’s just not that sort of film.  Despite using one of the most groansome clichés of cheap sci-fi (aliens stealing our women!) it’s really a very classy thriller with only a hint of sleaze about it.

Things start off in classic b-movie territory with scientists observing a mysterious object heading toward the earth (‘it must be a meteorite!’).  They realise it’s on course for London and the titles crash in, accompanied by typical shot of Foggy Olde London Towne and a cheesy title song crooned by Mark Richardson.  Once that’s over with we find that the space object’s missed London and landed somewhere in the countryside.  Retrieval of the object involves a standard clash between goodie scientists and pig-headed military.  Science is represented by US import John Saxon, handsome and engaging and far better than the usual dreary American lead, with top-drawer Brit support from Maurice Denham and Patricia Haines as his colleagues.  The equally great John Carson is the main army man.  The object’s a mysterious glowing sphere which is carted off to a secret research establishment.  The boffins are completely puzzled by it until a brilliantly suspenseful scene with Miss Barlow (Haines) alone in the lab, troubled by strange emanations from the sphere in the next room.  She goes to investigate and is grabbed by a strange, inhuman claw.  The claw looks like it’s been bought from the nearest joke shop, which doesn’t really help, but apart from that the scene’s a great achievement from veteran director John Gilling (who directed my fave Hammer film, The Plague of the Zombies the same year).

It turns out that the sphere’s a receiver which teleports a monstrous creature from Ganymede to the earth, and another edge-of-the-seat scene occurs when Denham sits in on the alien’s materialisation.  It doesn’t end well for him.  The creature manages to escape the research establishment in a car (leading to amusing shots of the great big monster hand gripping the steering wheel), mowing down Carson in the process.  With the monster on the loose the film completely changes emphasis, switching from Quatermass-esque sci-fi to classic 60s b-movie crime.  Moving forward a few weeks, several young women have gone missing in London and Superintendent Hartley (Alfred Burke) calls in Dr Costain (Saxon), convinced that the alien’s responsible.  And indeed he is – in an irresistibly bizarre turn of the plot it emerges that the intergalactic fiend (Medra as he likes to be called) is recruiting victims through an ad seeking models in soft porn mag Bikini Girl.  He’s aided by his lovely voice and a hypnotic swinging light in his swanky office suite in Soho (which looks a lot more discreet than it did in The Mutations).

During the hunt for Medra in London we’re treated to some fantastic character turns.  Warren Mitchell and Marianne Stone (in a much bigger part than usual) are a hilarious double act as the drearily suburban parents of one of the missing girls in the film’s most entertaining scene.  The moment where Mitchell sheepishly produces a copy of Bikini Girl from under his chair cushion for Hartley is especially priceless.  Later, the reliably sleazy Aubrey Morris turns up as a gay Soho bookseller who flirts with the thoroughly unimpressed Hartley.  And if that’s not enough, one of the police bigwigs in charge of the manhunt is Ballard Berkeley (Fawlty Towers’ potty Major Gowen).  He doesn’t have a great deal to do but his moustache is worth watching in itself.

Eventually brave Miss Barlow volunteers as bait for mellow-voiced Medra.  Her unfortunate end leads Costain to conclude that the alien has a ‘primordial lust for violence and savagery!’ But it’s not all that simple, and after a thrilling car chase through Guildford and its environs Medra (revealed as a normal-looking man with a dodgy hand and some scales on his face thanks to genetic mutation) returns to Ganymede with his bikini girls on a mission to repopulate, but not before issuing a standard sci-fi film warning about the dangers of progress.  The Night Caller is an odd mish-mash of genres that works mainly because of the sheer talent of the people involved.

I couldn’t find a trailer for this one, sorry… the best I can do is this, an alternate opening titles sequence with Alan Haven’s extremely groovy instrumental ‘Image’ instead of the title song:

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