Dead of Night: A Darkness at Blaisedon is a 1969 American made-for-television horror film directed by Lela Swift (Deadly Visitor; The Gift of Terror; The Satan Murders) from a screenplay by Dan Curtis (Burnt Offerings; Trilogy of Terror; The Norliss Tapes; et al) and Sam Hall (House of Dark Shadows). It stars Cal Bellini, Kerwin Mathews, Thayer David and Marj Dusay.
This was a pilot for a proposed supernatural series to be called “Dead of Night”. It was ordered by ABC-TV (already home of Dan Curtis’ hugely successful Dark Shadows). Although the series did not sell, the pilot was broadcast on 26 August 1969.
For those familiar with Dan Curtis’ other horror productions, this pilot for an early unrealized Dead of Night TV series covers similar, if distilled, burial grounds.
Most of the action takes place in Blaisedon Manor, an old manse borrowed directly from Poe and only seen in deep shadows and diaphanous mist. Cobwebs occupy every strategic surface and corner of the interior; electric light is eschewed in favour of less illuminating candle flame; worn, Victorian furniture steadfastly holds its ground against fast encroaching modernity from the outside world; angles are sharp and frequent, bordering on the Escheresque; fireplaces are large and framed by ornately carved mantles, over which hang ominous portraits invoking an unsettling past.
Angela Martin (elegantly played by Marj Dusay), who has just inherited the old Blaisedon estate, calls on Jonathan Fletcher (Kerwin Mathews at his sturdy, yet deferential, best) and Sajid Rau (played with breezy confidence by Cal Bellini), two paranormal investigators; she tells them she’s trying to sell off the house as she can’t afford to keep it.
However, no-one is apparently willing to buy the house because of claims it is haunted; she states she doesn’t believe in ghosts, but she would like Fletcher and Rau to investigate anyway in order to declare the house ghost-free and, therefore, marketable. Being stereotypical male characters from late ‘60s television, they immediately drop everything and agree to help this beautiful damsel in distress.
Music editor, Irving Robbin, deftly cobbled together bits and pieces from Robert Cobert’s masterly score for Curtis’ concurrently running hit, Dark Shadows (ABC, 1966 – 1971) for this chiller, adding a distinct feeling of unease due to Cobert’s ubiquitous wailing violins, echoing xylophones, and trembling bass notes which set the nerves on edge.
Trevor Williams’ art direction leaves no doubt that Blaisedon House is a place occupied by the creeping dead, with its numerous cobwebs, gloomy antique furniture, and murky wallpaper. The script by Curtis and long-time Dark Shadows scribe, Sam Hall, treads recognizable ground, but this ends up leaving the viewer feeling comfortably macabre rather than noticeably annoyed.
Lela Swift’s direction is energetic and tense due to bracing zooms and the constant and creative movement of the camera through excruciatingly tight sets; Swift’s and editor John Oldsewski’s frequent cuts simultaneously open up the close spaces and add to the mounting anxiety in each scene. And Thayer David, always an actor of considerable presence, here delivers an unsettling performance as Seth Blakely, the threateningly malevolent Blaisedon groundskeeper.
Being a shot-live-on-tape production, the movie does occasionally suffer from flubs: shadows from off-camera crew and boom mics clearly passing over sets and actors, microphone conversations just audible below the actor’s dialog, cameras hastily being moved out of shot once it’s discovered they’re visible.
Though not a blooper, one thing which does stand out, and which can either be seen as distracting or charming by the viewer is the costume design of Ramsey Mostoller, or simply Mostoller in the credits; her sense of fashion in this production was perfectly in step with the times but can be seen by an unforgiving modern audience as being horribly dated. Her design for Bellini’s character looks like the slightly altered wardrobe of Fred Jones from Scooby-Doo, loose ascot and all.
Despite these potential minor blemishes, this short (just under a full hour) pilot offers quite a few eerie shivers for the generous and accommodating viewer looking for classic, old-fashioned frights.
Ben Spurling, Horrorpedia
“Though not badly made or acted for the medium, everything here seems overly-familiar and the whole project is ultimately forgettable (even by 1969 standards).” The Bloody Pit of Horror
“A man’s possessions. How sad they are when he’s dead.”
Image thanks: The Bloody Pit of Horror