In 1972, Christopher Lee, increasingly frustrated with the glut of one-dimensional horror roles he was routinely offered, set about creating his own production company with the assistance of Hammer veteran Anthony Nelson Keys. Given the title Charlemagne Productions after Lee's famous ancestor, this new firm was supposed to provide him with some worthy starring vehicles, but due to the quicksand-like state of the British film industry in the 1970s, it was eventually responsible for just one movie, an adaptation of a little-known novel by John Blackburn entitled Nothing But the Night.
The plot sees Lee's bullish Colonel Bingham, a big cheese in MI5, or Scotland Yard's Special Branch, or something, investigating a series of inexplicable deaths linked to an offshore Scottish orphanage with the help of his friend, eminent pathologist Sir Mark Ashley (Peter Cushing). After a weird incident on a coach filled with the orphanage's children leaves the driver dead and one young girl (Gwyneth Strong, later Cassandra in Only Fools and Horses) with what appears to be amnesia, things begin to take a more sinister turn...
Admittedly, it appears that this modest horror-thriller had production difficulties from the very start; originally set to be helmed by Don Sharp (who worked with Lee on the likes of 1965's Rasputin, the Mad Monk), the directing duties were eventually assigned to Taste the Blood of Dracula's Peter Sasdy, but the talented Hungarian's efforts here do not match those on his well-regarded 1969 Lee / Hammer vampire sequel. The shoot, which involved much location work, was hampered by the fact that the tight budget didn't run to a second unit, whilst the filming schedule was beset with bad weather. The screenplay is incredibly tedious and takes a very long time to get nowhere in particular, whilst the performances lack a bit of vim as well.
Lee, attempting to break out of his perceived typecasting as an urbane villain, here plays the movie's ostensible `good guy' and comes a right cropper in the process; he somehow manages to make Bingham, no more than a thinly-written dullard in the script, into an objectionable, impatient loud-mouth. Lee had played irritable, but essentially decent, heroes before (1964's The Gorgon comes to mind), but none were as downright unappealing as his character here. Cushing fares a little better; his part is just as much of a cipher as Lee's, but he gets by on the fact that he's playing strictly to type, giving yet another airing to his familiar `investigative scientist' horror movie persona, though he certainly did it more compellingly in many other films. Because of all this, Nothing But the Night is not one of the best Cushing / Lee pairings, certainly ranking below their other 1970s efforts such as the cult classic Horror Express, and even I, Monster, Amicus' stillborn attempt at Jekyll and Hyde.
The supporting players are similarly weak. Strong gives a reasonable performance for such a young actress, but portraying her abusive, ex-prostitute mother, Diana Dors (a long, long way from her 1950s glory days as the `British Marilyn Monroe') gives a hideously hammy and grotesquely incongruous turn; all big hair and bad language, she's the horror movie equivalent of Renée Houston in Carry On At Your Convenience, and she's also central to the movie's most unintentionally hilarious sequence, in which, decked out in a bright red anorak and a ginger bouffant, she manages to hide from a police helicopter in the middle of some Scottish scrubland. Singer-actress Georgia Brown is okay as a reporter tagging along with Cushing and Lee, but it's a good thing her excruciatingly pointless `romantic' subplot with Duty Free's Keith Barron (playing Cushing's junior colleague) is unexpectedly knocked on the head less than halfway through the film. In minor roles as local coppers, Porridge's Fulton Mackay and a then-unknown Michael Gambon prop up the bottom of the cast list, whilst fans of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger might like to look out for Black Narcissus' Kathleen Byron, who turns up as one of the orphanage's mysterious trustees.
As previously stated, the poorer aspects of this movie outweigh the good ones, but in all fairness there are some points of interest. Barron's unexpected exit from the story is a welcome surprise, and the later discovery of a murdered little boy has a satisfyingly nasty kick to it. Also, the climax is offbeat enough to withstand inevitable comparisons to the final scene of The Wicker Man, the much more famous chiller Lee would star in the following year. Nothing But the Night isn't the bona-fide disaster it is often referred to as in many reviews, and if you are a fan of Lee and Cushing you may enjoy the film, but don't bank on it.
The 2012 DVD release will be the first chance many in the UK will have to view Nothing But the Night, as it crashed and burned at the box office on its original cinema run, and hasn't been seen on British TV in many years. Though the DVD has a clear full-screen transfer, it lacks extra features of any description, and whilst I'm not sure that the movie is worthy of all that much attention, it still would have been a nice bonus if a few of the surviving participants had been invited to take part in a commentary recording. At the time of writing, Sasdy, Strong, Barron, Gambon, and Lee himself are all still around, and given Lee's previous involvement in DVD commentary tracks for minor movies like The City of the Dead and Night of the Big Heat, I'm sure he would have liked to get some remarks regarding his only film as a producer on record.