We begin rather cryptically with a positively Bergmanesque hunting party sequence in the wilds of southern Connecticut, ambient sounds only, dominated by several shotgun blasts and several grouses meeting their end, but then tragedy strikes when one of these hunters is (not so) accidentally shot and killed, much to the horror of his two adult children, Elliot and Lynn Freeman. Who was it that shot him? In the confusion of crash-cuts and organ stings, no one can say for sure.
Now jump ahead several years and Elliot Freeman (Philips), a quick-tempered, mentally unstable Korean War vet, is living quite the Bohemian lifestyle in the family ancestral mansion, spending most of his time painting his newly discovered model and sort-of girlfriend, Dolores Martello (Elhardt). I say ‘sort-of’ girlfriend because Elliot isn’t one to stay in a relationship for very long. It doesn’t help matters that Dolores’ reluctant ex is a psychotic greaseball by the name of Charlie Perone (Farentino), whom Elliot makes quick work of with his infantry-bred jujitsu skills when a fight breaks out over the girl in the local bar. Both are given the bum’s rush and head their separate ways. Elliot takes Dolores home but is interrupted mid-I’m-dumping-you-speech when the girl reveals she’s pregnant. Certain it isn’t his, Dolores counters no one will believe that after all the time she’s spent in the nude modelling for him.
Elliot withdraws before his temper gets the better of him. After he’s gone, alone, but not as alone as she thinks, Dolores doesn’t realize a trench-coated stranger in combat boots, a knife clasped in a black-gloved hand, has stealth’d their way into her apartment, springs into action, and then brutally stabs the girl to death. And once the body is found, the police quickly zero in on the two most likely suspects, Perone and Elliot. Both have very shaky alibis for the time of the murder, but there are a few more possible suspects, namely a perverted peeping-tom (Tuttle), who teaches botany at the local girl's college that Elliot’s sister, Lynn (Hartman), has recently transferred to; and one gets the sense that the Freeman family lawyer, Adrian Benedict (Strudwick), and his one man brute-squad (O’Dowd) might be up to something, too. Whoeverdunit, the police, led by Lt. Palmer (Van Patten), had best get their man quick because the phantom killer has already set their sights on someone else…
After a brief stint in Hollywood, where he served as an extra in the likes of Stalag 17 (1953) and The Wild One (1953), Del Tenney moved back east and had a solid career as a New York based stage actor and theatrical roustabout. Tenney also got married, to fellow actress Margot Hartman, had a couple of kids, and decided to switch professions to something a little less time-consuming that didn't call for all-night rehearsals and extended road tours. Wanting to stay in the arts, and with a desire to leave a more permanent legacy for his career in the same, he ingratiated himself into New York's seedier film scene and, using his theater connections, landed a few bit parts in some early burlesque films, where he was soon drawn behind the camera, which garnered him a few assistant-director credits for the likes of Satan in High Heels (1962) and Orgy at Lil's Place (1963).
While learning the trade with these sleaze-noirs, Tenney crossed paths with Richard Hilliard, another fledgling filmmaker, who had churned out his own little opus to sexual-dysfunction gone homicidal with The Lonely Sex (1959). And together, these two decided to collaborate on something a little more substantial that could break them out of the grindhouses. It germinated with a story idea for Black Autumn, based on an actual murder of a co-ed that took place while Margot had attended the same college. From there, the script would take its cue from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), resulting in a stark and grisly thriller that appears to be a cheap-jack exploitation piece on the surface; but the devil, as they say, is in the details. And when you start peeling back the layers you’ll find a movie with some interesting ideas, with a steady and stylish eye behind the camera, and a fearless attitude as the independent feature aggressively pushed well beyond what mainstream Hollywood could/would allow at the time.
Though the credits show Tenney as the producer and Hilliard as the director, in the commentary track provided by Dark Sky’s excellent DVD of Violent Midnight, it's revealed we kinda had a Howard Hawks-Christian Nyby-Thing from Another World (1951) situation, where Tenney claims to have given (the in over his head) Hilliard the credit but directed most of the picture himself. Shot in Stamford, Connecticut, in glorious black ‘n’ white, the film has a noirish, procedural presence mixed with some prescient European gialli-like flare – nudity, sexual promiscuity, and a lot of graphic violence and blood, but you have to remember the giallo hadn’t really been invented yet with Blood and Black Lace (and it's eerily similar garbed killer) not coming out until the year after this film was released, making it a bizarre mash-up of Hitchcock, Jack Webb and Mario Bava.
And for a patched together regional feature with a budget of only $42,000, where any notions of grandeur were usually abandoned for the sake of limited budgets and a lack of time, Tenney, Hilliard and cinematographer, Louis McMahon, managed some pretty ambitious and imaginative camera work, with lots of dolly-shots and some deft hand-held action, which was then patched together by Robert Lovett, resulting in a snappy little thriller on the visual end that is about [-this-] close to achieving a French New Wave level of cinéma vérité. Throw in a canned library music soundtrack and the film also brings to mind Night of the Living Dead (1968). E’yup, this thriller is just chock full of all kinds of stock influences for one tasty stew.
For the cast, Tenney once more relied on his theatrical connections, which netted him some soon to be familiar TV faces with Lee Philips (The Andy Griffith Show), James Farentino (Police Story), and Dick Van Patten (Eight is Enough). (Watching Van Patten in a non-comedic role takes a bit of an adjustment but he’s really quite good as the street-wise detective.) A fixture in Andy Warhol’s menagerie, Sylvia Miles plays the lovelorn, over the hill barfly who provides a false alibi for Perone until he finally cheats on her one too many times. Kaye Elhardt bares all for her role as the first victim, in a scene completely cribbed but still a very effective knock-off of the shower scene from Psycho, complete with subliminal film cuts between the killer’s real cuts. And then Lorrain Rogers plays the collegiate sexual predator who gets her claws into both Freeman and Perone, throwing more suspicions on both when she, too, winds up dead. The cast is then rounded out by Jean Hale as Carol Bishop, an old flame of Freeman's that’s looking to rekindle things, and then Margot Hartman as Freeman’s sister, who proves just as unstable as her brother. All helped to elevate the script that gets more convoluted as she goes, credited to Hilliard and Robin Miller, which, again, proves the film’s only real flaw as not enough people are killed, leaving the film with nothing to do except drown in some melodrama until the mystery is finally resolved.
Still, it’s all engrossing enough – stress on the 'gross', as this sleazy and steamy potboiler barrels toward the climax. Secrets are revealed, including who really killed the Freeman’s father. And just when the cops think they’ve nailed Perone for the grisly homicides, the audience knows he couldn’t have done it; or Elliot for that matter either. And now, the real killer is closing in on Carol, with her only hope of rescue being Elliot. Too bad he’s bundled up in the back of his lawyer’s car, who thinks his client is the killer, and on the way to Boston for another stay in the mental hospital to lay a foundation for another insanity defense. (Another stay, you ask? Well, turns out Elliot took the blame for Lynn for their father’s death and the lawyer got him off on a PTSD technicality. Why did she kill him? It’s best not to ask.) And as the wheels threaten to come off the movie completely, it manages to hold itself together with a resolution that makes sense, doesn’t cheat, but gets a little weird on some homicidal sexual hang-ups, with everything explained away in another post-denouement nod to Hitchcock.
Upon completion, the film was picked up by Victoria Films, known mostly for distributing foreign imports; most notably Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958). They changed the name to Violent Midnight during its initial run but when Psycho was re-released to theaters the name changed again to Psychomania to cash in – not to be confused with Don Sharp’s delirious ode to bikers of the living dead, Psychomania (1973). The film also got Tenney Productions on Alan V. Iselin’s radar, another theater chain owner looking to get into film production, who commissioned Tenney for a new double-feature, unleashing the truly gonzoidal The Horror of Party Beach (1964) and the totally under-appreciated The Curse of the Living Corpse (1964) on the viewing public.
I think the secret of Del Tenney’s success, both artistically and economically, in all of his independent features, is that Tenney and his crew took the time and the effort to make those $40,000 budgets look like $45000 onscreen. Now, that may not seem like much but if you took a straw poll of equally budgeted genre films, and then do a little contemporary compare and contrast, I think you'll see the ‘whole lot of something out of the whole lot of nothing’ I'm getting at. Just because it’s cheap doesn't mean it can't be made better with a little focus, ingenuity, and effort -- a "keep it simple, stupid" attitude whose main goal was to give the viewer what they paid to see without the usual bait and switch. Audiences seemed to appreciate the effort, which netted Tenney a tidy profit from all of his features.
Alas, after that short spurt from 1963-1964, after a sour experience shooting Voodoo Bloodbath (later released in 1971 as I Eat Your Skin), his only flop, and it is terrible, Tenney took those profits and put them into real estate, content to let his film career end there until briefly resurfacing for another Poe tribute, Descendant, in 2003, which wasn't half bad, making one wonder what else could have happened in the intervening four decades. I for one felt he should have made more, but I'm eternally thankful for what we got. And though he will probably be forever known as the man who gave us those bratwurst bogarting, cross-eyed, pigeon-toed and knock-kneed fish critters from Party Beach, after watching his first film again for this retrospective, perhaps Tenney should be remembered better for Violent Midnight.
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Violent Midnight (1963) Del Tenny Productions :: Victoria Films / P: Del Tenney, Art Wolff / D: Richard Hilliard / W: Robin Miller, Richard Hilliard, Mann Rubin, Margot Hartman, Del Tenney / C: Louis McMahon / E: Robert Q. Lovett / M: Wilford L. Holcombe / S: Lee Philips, James Farentino, Sylvia Miles, Shepperd Strudwick, Margot Hartman, Jean Hale, Lorraine Rogers, Kaye Elhardt, Dick Van Patten