Synopsis: A knife-wielding serial killer known as the Maniac is terrorizing the countryside, and the police, led by the clueless Detective Bailey (Matt McHugh) are unable to catch him. Each of the Maniac’s victims is found with a newspaper headline pinned to the body (as befits a Columbia picture, these headlines are in 42-point font, saying things like MANIAC STILL ON THE LOOSE!).
Meanwhile, at the Rinehart mansion, Dr. Arthur Hornsby (George Meeker) is working late on a chemical formula that will place a person in a state of suspended animation. To demonstrate that his formula works, he plans to inject himself with the serum, then have his body placed in a coffin, buried in the backyard, then dug up eight hours later and revived. A number of skeptical scientists will be on hand to witness the experiment.
Hornsby’s experiment is worrisome to his fiancée, Mary Rinehart (Sally Blane), and she is frustrated that he pays more attention to his experiments than to her. In spite of the fact that she and Hornsby are engaged, Mary is being aggressively courted by brash newspaper reporter Tom Hartley (Wallace Ford) , who is covering the Maniac killings. While Mary chides Hartley about his advances, it’s clear that she is flattered by the attention – attention she isn’t getting from Hornsby.
The servants at the Rinehart estate are as quirky as its other inhabitants. Ethnically indeterminate butler Degar (Bela Lugosi) seems to be carefully guarding a secret or two, and mystical maid Sika (Mary Frey) believes that various omens from the spirit world are pointing toward ghastly fates for all in the Rinehart household.
When family patriarch Richard dies under mysterious circumstances, the will reveals that everyone in the household — including the servants — shares in the inheritance. What’s more, should any of the inheritors die, that portion of the estate will devolve to the others. So when members of the Rinehart family start to turn up dead, the question is obvious: are they victims of the Maniac, or each other?
Comments: This week we’re offered a bit of a cinematic dog’s breakfast. Night of Terror throws everything against the wall at once, with an almost unhinged expectation that something will stick. We get a deranged killer, a spooky house, “oriental” mystics, Erlenmeyer flasks, secret passages, premature burials, reefer cigarettes, buffoonish policemen, smart-aleck reporters and beautiful young women. Please God, let something stick!
It’s a movie that tries so hard to be novel that all attempts at logic and coherence are tossed out the window. Why would Hornsby need to bury himself in a coffin in the backyard in order to test his theory about suspended animation? Is he a scientist, or Harry Houdini?
Why do the police do nothing whatsoever to secure the Rinehart house after the first murder, allowing people to hold seances, and traipse on and off the premises at will? For that matter, why are the police unable to catch a serial killer as reckless and indiscriminate as the Maniac? And what’s up with the Maniac’s teeth?
And who are Degar and Sika, anyway? How did they end up as domestics in the Rinehart mansion? What religion and / or ethnic group do they represent?
Admittedly, audiences in the 1930s only required a bit of hand-waving toward “the Orient” to be satisfied, but come on — they have to come from somewhere. I have to presume that Degar is a Sikh, judging by his turban; but if Lugosi is playing someone from the Punjab, he is even less of an actor than I thought. What Sika is supposed to be is anyone’s guess. She can’t be a Sikh; they don’t hold seances. Is she a gypsy, then? (they don’t hold seances either, but they are at least associated with the occult in moviegoer’s minds). Who knows? And really, who cares? The truth is, watching the movie closely will probably make you enjoy it less, not more.
Sally Blane is one of the bright spots in an otherwise dreary cast. She was the older sister of Loretta Young and her look and mannerisms evoke her more famous sibling.
Oscar Smith plays Martin the chauffeur, a keenly embarrassing “feets don’t fail me now” comic relief role. Edwin Maxwell plays the Maniac with such loony gusto that you wonder if going so far over the top was his idea or the director’s. As for our old friend Bela, I can only characterize his portrayal of Degar as a typical performance during what proved to be the zenith of his career. He was often paid relatively large sums of money to be the red herring, which he is here.
Who is the real murderer, you ask? Well, I won’t tell. The Maniac is, apparently, still at large. The clip below will explain everything.
Good night. Sleep tight. And….pleasant dreams.