‘Night Terror’ (1977): Valerie Harper changes gears in tense suspenser

Next up on our hit list is Rhoda! Now, you can find Valerie Harper’s 1977 NBC made-for-TV movie, Night Terror, for sale on various public domain discs, but make sure you type in Night Drive, because somehow, somewhere, this spiffy, creepy little actioner was re-titled.

By Paul Mavis

Frazzled, scatterbrained Phoenix, Arizona housewife and mother Carol Turney (Valerie Harper) has to deal with yet another house move, this time to Denver, Colorado, thanks to her super-controlled, super-confident, super-condescending, super-emotionally removed husband, Walter (Michael Tolan). Mr. Corporate Tool has been transferred five times in the last 10 years, so Carol’s used to it…but no better at it, and that’s because Walter is the brains of the outfit. As he tells Carol’s sister, Vera (Beatrice Manley), space cadet Carol likes it that he keeps her fuzzy head on track (when Carol can’t find her to-do list, and Walter magically pulls out a copy—because he just knew she’d lose hers—Carol dreamily coos, “You’re so perfect,”).

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Unfortunately, the plan to follow the kids to Denver (who flew ahead with Aunt Vera) goes awry when Walter is delayed by his company (there goes the second honeymoon they planned at a sleazy motel), and when one of the kids gets a mastoid infection at a Denver hospital. Carol has to leave Phoenix, but the Denver airport is snowed in, and she can’t get Walter on the phone. In desperation, Carol decides to attempt the 16-hour drive in the middle of the night—a shaky proposition since Carol has almost zero self-confidence making a shopping list, let alone attempting such an endurance test behind the wheel of her big-assed Ford Torino station wagon. Too bad she slows down to ask a cop about getting some gas, because when he turns around, a speed freak killer (Richard Romanus) cuts the cop in two with a shotgun blast, right before he sees Carol…who saw him kill the cop. Now, Carol must turn her brain back on, and outrun the killer.

Anybody who saw Night Terror when it first aired on NBC on February 7th, 1977, will never forget the sight of psychotic, mute Richard Romanus putting that Remington Triple Blade electric shaver/electrolarynx up to his throat and creeping the sh*t out of millions of viewers with his buzzing, robotic voice (too bad Harper was up against the second chapter of ABC’s blockbuster Western pilot/special, How the West Was Won, with James Arness—it killed Rhoda’s Road Trip in the ratings). An obvious nod to Spielberg’s MTV Duel, Night Terror can’t compete one-on-one with that masterpiece, but on its own, it’s a tense, tight outing, with well-executed suspense/action scenes from old pro, E.W. Swackhammer (has there ever been a cooler name in movies?) and a memorable performance from Romanus.

Night Terror begins with an appropriately disturbing, drive-in exploitation-like opening sequence: a silent, narrow-eyed, disturbed Romanus shooting up a “No Littering” sign out on a lonely two-lane stretch of desert blacktop, with composer Fred Steiner’s pounding music in the background. Director Swackhammer, a clean, efficient director of numerous television episodes and made-for-TV movies, keeps his frames simple and direct; you won’t find any Spielbergian flourishes here. This is meat-and-potatoes moviemaking, and just as enjoyable for that simplicity of purpose.

The screenplay by Richard DeNeut and Carl Gabler (each of whom, strangely, have only this movie to their credits) is also extremely lean—at least when it comes to Romanus’ killer character. Exactly one vague line of motivation is given the character; he’s at a pay phone, and his unseen caller states, “Soldier, the goods better be there.” That’s it. With his dog tags we assume he’s a former soldier…but what kind? Is he one of the band of crazed Vietnam vets that roamed TV sets back in the mid-70s? Is he selling something illegal, like guns or drugs, in that army footlocker? Or is he a smuggler? We have to guess, just like we have to guess why he uses an electrolarynx. And that refusal to elaborate is fine—it only makes his murderous rage all that more inexplicable and frightening, and his focus on killing Harper that more singular and relentless.

The screenplay does provide a subtext for Harper’s character, however, one that no doubt enticed the actress in the first place to participate. At this time in her career, Harper was frequently interviewed and quoted about her feelings concerning the Equal Rights movement and feminism, particularly while starring in her own series, Rhoda, featuring a character who transitioned from wife to divorced business owner. Night Terror isn’t exactly subtle in the way it introduces those themes into its straight suspenser framework. While it’s enjoyable to see Harper’s character gradually evolve from a dependent housewife into a competent hard-ass who feels no compunction in running over her attacker, the initial depiction of Carol as some kind of addle-pated Stepford Wife, coddled and guided by the condescending hand of her controlling husband, is too broad and facile, and thus lessens the transformation’s impact.

Whoever designed Carol (why do I get the feeling Harper had a lot of say in shaping her, particularly with two anonymous scripters?) did so as if she’s unable to get through a door, let alone an average day of managing a household. This is “housewife as incompetent boob,” a notion that got laughs with Lucy, but which here is insulting to a then-large portion of the TV viewing audience (hard-left feminists still contemptuously look at “mere” housewives”—one of the hardest jobs in the world—like an antifa goon looks at a Confederate statue). If social critics, screenwriters, and actors looking to make a statement would go back and actually watch, before attacking, the shows from television’s “repressive” era, they’d find a whole lot of smart housewives who ran rings around their bumbling husbands (back then, women’s TV roles were almost exclusively limited to domestic duties, admittedly…but producers weren’t going to deliberately insult their main audience: women).

Still, it’s quite fun to see Harper go from walking into a wall to ballsy road warrior. The script is clever enough in setting up a series of events that put her on the road, alone: husband delayed, kid dying, airport snowed in, a 16-hour drive alone (that may seem like nothing now, in the reassuring days of GPS and cell phones, but a long, solitary trip back then through long expanses of nothingness, at night, would make any driver pause). Once she’s in motion, the further obstacles that are put in her way only ratchet up the movie’s tension—the best being her gas tank already on empty. That gives the storyline a needling worry right out of the gate (if you look at the 50 cents a gallon sign with envy, it works out to only $2.10 today with inflation…and that 4,000lb gas hog of a station wagon of hers would be lucky to get 15 miles per on the highway).

And as Night Terror ditches its subtexty set-up and gets down to the action, it does its job quite well. It’s a jittery, nerve-wracking ride. Swackhammer knows how to stage an unpretentious, tense scene, whether it’s flat-out action as Harper tries to outmaneuver Romanus on a freeway turnoff, or a dead-quiet extended scene where Harper has to figure out how to get some gas from a closed-up station (Swackhammer just lets the camera run, showing us Harper working out the problem in her head while physically struggling with the mechanics of getting the power on to work the locked pump—it’s the best scene in the movie). Shooting half the movie at night, the single-source lighting isolates Harper claustrophobically in her car, the vast desert landscapes invisible in the dark. But daylight is no help to her, either, as Swackhammer continually isolates Harper in the bright, desolate sands.

Night Terror’s performances are spot on. Michael Tolan, a familiar face from 70s TV, gets the smarmy, confident, condescending husband down pat , while John Quade has a memorable bit as a disturbed hobo who isn’t the threat he first appears to be. Richard Romanus makes the strongest impact here as the voiceless killer. Narrowing his rat-like eyes and hissing that wild, soundless scream, he’s quite frightening, whether he’s frustrated in a restroom (the soap powder—remember that?—doesn’t come out fast enough…so he rips the dispenser off the wall), or staring down a chatty waitress who can’t get the message he doesn’t want to talk (he takes his coffee and pours it all over his food and countertop, daring her to do something, before he puts her bill money in his mouth and spits it out at her—a great bit, that).

Valerie Harper is obviously the star here, but quite frankly, her take on Carol in the opening scenes is so off-putting, it’s tough to get past the initial impression (she’s fine in the later action scenes, but you’d root for her more if you had liked her more in the beginning). Unfortunately, anyone looking for what made Harper such a dynamic, free-wheeling, entirely likeable actor in the Rhoda character, won’t find it in Night Terror. Watch her in something like 1974’s b.o. hit, Freebie and the Bean, a turn which should have made her a big screen movie star: whip-smart, perfect comedic timing (she bests pro Alan Arkin, no small feat), and insanely hot. Why big screen movies like that weren’t in the cards for Harper is anyone’s guess…but it’s hard not to feel she seems a little glum, a little put-out in Night Terror, as if cheap made-for-TV thrillers weren’t what she was hoping for at that point in her career.

This review was originally published as part of our series, Killing the Ladies of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Here are the other reviews in the series:
Dying Room Only
Payback

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

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