In retrospect, it would appear as if Universal Studios owned the American horror cinema market in the 1930s. In actuality, however, nearly every studio in town was making horror films just as prolifically during that decade, with RKO Radio Pictures (King Kong, The Most Dangerous Game), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Freaks, Mad Love), and Columbia Pictures (Black Moon, The Man They Could Not Hang, The Black Room) all releasing quality fright flicks. Columbia was especially productive, even managing to convince some of Universal’s stars to moonlight on their movies. That’s what they did in 1933 with the great Bela Lugosi, just two years after he became a household name in Dracula, with Night of Terror.
After a fun crystal ball-inspired opening credits sequence, Night of Terror opens with a bit of heavy-handed exposition explaining how a Maniac is stalking the countryside and killing unsuspecting citizens, taunting the police by leaving a newspaper clipping pinned to each victim. The menace of the Maniac does not deter a young scientist named Dr. Arthur Hornsby (The Invisible Monster’s George Meeker) from working on his latest project, a method of surviving without oxygen for days which he intends to test out by burying himself alive. Before he can get to his experiment, his rich uncle, Richard Rinehart (Tully Marshall from The Cat and the Canary), is killed by the Maniac. Arthur moves forward with his burial test while the rest of his relatives gather for the reading of the will. One by one, the survivors are killed off, with the Maniac initially taking the blame. Before long, however, the family starts to suspect the uncle’s servants, Degar (Lugosi) and Sika (Mary Frey in her only screen credit), who will profit greatly if there are no surviving heirs. A detective named Bailey (Matt McHugh from the Devil and Miss Jones) and a reporter named Hartley (The Mummy’s Tomb’s Wallace Ford) try to solve the murders before everyone, including Arthur in the ground, is dead.
Night of Terror was directed by Benjamin Stoloff (The Mysterious Doctor, The Hidden Hand), adapted by William Jacobs (Song of the Saddle) and Beatrice Van (Modern Love) from a story called “The Public Be Damned” by Willard Mack (The Witch Woman, The Monster). At its root, it’s a murder mystery, but even the most casual of horror fans will also recognize it as an early slasher. It also dips its foot into the supernatural subgenre with an over-the-top séance scene, and gives a little wink to Edgar Allan Poe with Arthur’s “premature burial.” And all of this happens while Hartley, the newspaperman, provides a slapstick kind of comic relief. It’s safe to say that, although it keeps its focus very well, Night of Terror is a mixed-bag of horror hits.
After becoming a cultural icon in 1931 with his portrayal of Dracula, Bela Lugosi found himself flooded with work. Partially because he was a hot Hollywood commodity and partially to bail himself out of debt, Lugosi often worked long and hard on several projects at once. These years resulted in some of Lugosi’s finest films, including White Zombie, The Black Cat, Mark of the Vampire, and Phantom Ship. Because of his thick accent, he was typecast as a foreigner in American films, and that is what he plays in Night of Terror. His role is dripping with racial stereotype (along with Mary Frey’s role as his wife, Sika), but Lugosi still manages to play it as a character instead of a cartoon.
As mentioned earlier, Night of Terror is a prototypical slasher movie. There is a psychotic killer stalking the inhabitants of a house, picking off his victims one by one when they are alone. Granted, this was 1933, and whether for budgetary or censorship reasons, there is very little slashing; most of the killings take place off-screen, and those that do occur in front of the audience hide their methodology by using camera angles, prop and set placement, and the actor’s blocking. Night of Terror may not be bloody, but make no mistake – it’s as slashery as they come.
As with any good slasher, Night of Terror has a fun psycho killer. The antagonist is known only as The Maniac, and his performance is credited to Edwin Maxwell (His Girl Friday), although the character is under so much makeup and costuming that it is rumored that it was a different unknown (and uncredited) actor who played the part for most of the film. The bulk of The Maniac’s screen time in the movie is spent creeping around in bushes and peering into windows, so whoever played the role, he didn’t get seen much, aside from a threatening message at the end of the movie where he promises the audience that “if you dare tell anyone how this picture ends…I’ll climb into your bedroom window tonight and tear you limb from limb!” That’s one way to deal with potential spoilers!
The Universal monster movies of the thirties have had a more lasting appeal with audiences, so they are the pictures that are most fondly remembered from that particular era of horror. With a few exceptions, the other studios’ offerings are considered deep cuts. As for Bela Lugosi, he continued to work steadily, but still couldn’t avoid getting cast as immigrants and foreigners in American films, and eventually ended up playing caricatures of himself in movies like The Black Sleep and Bride of the Monster. But if you’ve powered through all of the Universal horror movies and are still in the mood for some Lugosi, Night of Terror should scratch the itch.