“She’s the only witness to the murder … and the murderer is right behind her.”
Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a column where I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the 70s. This week’s entry is for fans of Duel, The Hitcher, and Breakdown — which should be everyone — and while it doesn’t reach their respective heights it’s a solid little thriller that sees a beloved TV icon on a desolate highway with a killer on her tail.
When: February 7th, 1977
Carol Turner (Valerie Harper) is a harried mother of two who can’t seem to get her shit together. She’s uncomfortable with change, to say the least, and her husband’s recent decision to move the family from Phoenix to Denver has put a lot on her already full plate. With the house packed up the kids fly ahead with their aunt leaving Carol and Walter to enjoy the drive as something of a second honeymoon. Plans change, though, and when Walter’s called away on business Carol’s left waiting. The boredom ends quickly when her sister calls saying their son is in the hospital — worried, focused, and forced to drive after discovering the Denver airport is closed due to bad weather, Carol hits the road alone.
Cue the psycho killer wandering the lonely highways between Arizona and Colorado on the lookout for road signs and people to shoot.
Night Terror (aka Night Drive) is a starring vehicle for Harper, but the real draw here is the cat and mouse set-pieces she shares with the killer (Richard Romanus). The two are obvious flipsides character-wise — she’s the helpless and hapless prey, and he’s the maniacal madman on the hunt — and while the contrast is nothing new for the genre it’s handled well here by director E.W. Swackhamer (this is a great name) who delivers some tense and suspenseful sequences along the way.
We glimpse the unnamed killer a few times before they cross paths, and the scenes make it very clear that he’s a tinderbox of barely restrained rage and mayhem. Just ask the restaurant bathroom that he beats to hell for no discernible reason. Carol’s had her own troubles to this point including a dwindling gas tank and a van full of wise-ass teenagers, but it all comes to a head when she passes the killer’s yellow Mustang that’s been pulled over by a cop. She distracts the officer hoping to get some help, and the killer shoots the poor sap in the back before moving his aim towards Carol.
Plot and characters firmly in place, the film shifts into high gear for its remainder as Carol tries her best to elude the madman and reach her ailing son. Does she end up running out of gas twice? Twice! Yes, she does, but in her defense, it’s in two different cars. Happily, while the script sets Carol up as a helpless dingbat she evolves into someone far more capable.
One extended sequence unfolds dialogue-free for several minutes as she breaks into a closed gas station in the hopes of finding a phone. She’s confronted with a series of obstacles — getting in, finding change for the payphone, restoring power — and rather than race through them, the film follows in real-time as she deals with them one by one. It’s the kind of thing that could easily derail a suspense film and drag it down, but here it works to highlight her increasing self-sufficiency powered by need and survival. As forgetful and clumsy as she is as a mom she’s forced to be far more resourceful with a killer in her rearview mirror. Another sequence has her car stuck in the mud, but rather than spin tires for minutes on end she uses the car’s floor mats to provide traction. It’s smart!
It’s pretty satisfying as character arcs go, and Harper sells both ends of it equally well despite the first half approaching broad caricature. The satisfaction she discovers in herself is visible, and when it’s all over we know more about her than Walter does. “You’re not exactly Gloria Steinem you know,” he tells her, completely unaware of what she’s been through, and her smile is the only reply necessary. The killer doesn’t get an arc of his own, but he’s charismatic in his own way. He’s essentially a mute and can only talk with an electrolarynx pressed to his throat, but he rarely does so preferring silence as its own form of intimidation and instead lets his numerous guns do his talking. Romanus crafts a strong presence with that silence and “speaks” mostly through expressions and non-verbal intimidation.
Night Terror is one of those fun old movies where a cell phone would end it all in a matter of moments, but without that modern marvel, our hero is left to rely on far more interesting tools in her arsenal. That, in turn, makes for an engaging watch and a film well worth seeking out for fans of TV terrors from decades past.
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