“I know why my dreams seem real! Because when I’m with you my life seems like a nightmare!”
Edgar Wright should be proud. His latest creation, Last Night in Soho, is a film that’s quite positively one of the best of the year thanks to its homage to swinging 60’s London, its ghostly mystery and surprising poignancy. While the movie is certainly worthy of awards recognition, it’s also such a special film that it places itself above the realm of accolades and the cold shoulder audiences gave it over the weekend. This story of a young woman (Thomasin McKenzie) in the present day who disappears into the past and into the reality of the girl (Anya Taylor-Joy) who used to live in her studio apartment whenever she goes to sleep has continued to haunt and mesmerize me days after watching it.
Wright has checked all the boxes (and perhaps added a few new ones) in crafting this spellbinding tale of someone’s present being dominated by the world they enter whenever they fall asleep. It’s not the easiest of sub-genres to pull off, as the 2000 Demi Moore dramatic misfire Passion of Mind showed us. But when done just right, as in William Castle’s The Night Walker, the experience is a wonderfully dizzying one.
In The Night Walker, Barbara Stanwyck stars as Irene Trent, the wealthy wife of a blind businessman named Howard (Hayden Rorke), a dominating man who is intensely jealous of his wife. Howard believes Irene is secretly in love with another man despite the fact that she never leaves the house. The truth is, Irene is in love with another man, a tall handsome figure (Lloyd Bochner) who comes to her in her dreams. When Irene’s husband dies in a horrible accident, the dreams she has start to become eerily real and her grip on reality begins to loosen. With the help of Barry (Robert Taylor), her husband’s attorney, Irene tries to piece together what is real in her life and what isn’t.
There’s really only one kind of response that people give when they hear the name William Castle. The director most known for his schlocky horror films, which he promoted through a series of gimmicks and novelties, may not have endeared him to serious critics, but did manage to win over hoards of terrified fans. House on Haunted Hill, Macabre and The Tingler, among others, helped establish Castle as the go-to director for fast and oftentimes innovative scares. It’s because of this history that The Night Walker is easily overlooked and eventually stands out like a sore thumb when noticed. As a movie, it’s probably the one which bears the least resemblance to what most would consider a William Castle film. It treats its subject matter with total seriousness, it plays the beats of its mystery with the right kind of precision and relies solely on the strength of the material for thrills instead of Castle’s array of parlor tricks. Of course, it helps to be working from an original screenplay by Robert Bloch. The pair’s talents conspire to create a truly crackling surrealist thriller, but they also go further than before by having a female protagonist both seem heavily invested in. In their eyes, Irene isn’t just another damsel to put into distress, she’s a woman who is indeed haunted in both her dreams and in reality by the choices she’s made in life. Castle sees this in the character and his affection towards Irene further helps make The Night Walker his unsung masterpiece.
Ultimately, what makes this a real departure for Castle is the fact that he’s dealing not with the theme of ghosts, skeletons and creepy old ladies found in basements, but one which applies to virtually everyone. The movie’s tone is set thanks to the otherworldy opening featuring an unknown narrator delving into the world of dreams, their meaning and their power. “What do you know about the strange world you visit when you sleep,” the voice asks, preparing the audience by forcing them to ponder their own relationship with the dreams they have. When the voice asks: “Have you ever dreamed that you were flying, flying into strange places far beyond the worlds we know,” the stage is set for an eerie experience that will journey back and forth between two worlds. Castle executes these worlds brilliantly by showing Irene’s interactions with her “dream” man taking place in a space that feels both real and unreal. Even the actual real world feels like it isn’t quite right, especially when it comes to Howard. With his slightly off putting features and a manner which is a special brand of sadistic, the two worlds Irene finds herself in are always testing her sanity. It’s in the wedding scene where that sanity is put to the ultimate test. In what is definitely the movie’s centerpiece, Irene’s dream guides her to a wedding chapel where she is to be married to this handsome, unnamed figure with mannequins dressed and smiling serving as the priest, witnesses and organist who plays a reworked version of the wedding march courtesy of Vic Mizzy. The sequence is handled with such a playful, surrealist eye, that it’s easy to get caught up in the nightmare, especially when Irene awakens in bed to find a new wedding ring on her finger, causing her to exclaim: “I can’t wake up!”
Oddly enough it’s Taylor who is billed first in The Night Walker’s opening credits and he turns in a quality performance here as does Roarke, the sharply handsome Bochner and Judi Meredith as an employee of the salon Irene owns. But this is strictly Stanwyck’s show. On paper, the idea of the great Stanwyck starring in a William Castle movie might’ve indicated that the actress was scraping the bottom of the barrel, especially since the film was made at the height of the grand dame guignol sub-genre of movies when established older actresses were relegated to lower-budgeted horror films. Make no mistake however, Irene is a prototypical Stanwyck role. The character embodies so much of what the legendary actress always excelled at, namely ferocity, regret and a sorrowful longing as seen through those eyes. Stanwyck brings all of that to the table as a woman struggling to hold onto her sanity and start a new life over for herself. The actress also makes for an impressive scream queen with her many yells and cries which give The Night Walker the kind of intensity that helps move it along.
All signs should have pointed to success for Castle and Bloch. The two had recently scored a surprise hit with Joan Crawford by putting her in the future slasher classic Strait-Jacket. I’m sure everyone thought that their re-teaming, as well as the addition of Stanwyck, would ensure the formula could work on repeat. But audiences just didn’t turn up they way they had for Strait-Jacket, making this movie a flop. Perhaps the subject of dreams and the idea of what turns them into nightmares may have seemed a little much for Castle fans who just wanted more of his quick, effective frights. As for Stanwyck, The Night Walker ended up being her final feature before she moved over to television for the remainder of her career. Irene may not have been Stella Dallas or Double Indemnity, but watching the actress command the screen in that magnetic way only she did for nearly four decades while elevating Castle’s movie in ways he probably hadn’t imagined, this final note feels right.