“I bang every bird I meet, and they enjoy it!”
It’s generally accepted that Michael Powell’s seminal Peeping Tom (1959) was the film that instigated the ‘urban horror’ boom in the UK and the gradual shift away from the traditional Gothic favoured by Hammer and AIP, although some may wish to look toward Terry Bishop’s similarly-themed quota quickie of the same year, Cover Girl Killer, for a real taste of the trash aesthetic that would become so prevalent in the ensuing decades and would reach its apex with the ‘terror films’ of Pete Walker. But several films released between 1960 and 1970, including some made by Hammer themselves, were also important stops along the way and should not be overlooked.
Night After Night After Night, whilst in no way a great British horror in the sense of, say, Night of the Eagle, The Devil Rides Out, Village of the Damned or indeed the aforementioned Tom, is more than just important – in terms of its place in horror’s chronology it is actually a seminal film. Firstly, it was the last major release (yes, ‘major’ – these films were popular back then, and played to large crowds for long runs in cinemas nationwide) to have sprung forth from the now-legendary stable of Butchers Film Distributors, the producers of so many great black and white Poverty Row crime programmers throughout the Fifties and Sixties that we have all enjoyed at one time or another on either late-night or afternoon graveyard slots on commercial television. If I’m not very much mistaken, it was also their one and only colour release, thus heralding the end of one era and the beginning of another, bleaker, grittier and yet much more lurid one.
The Swinging Sixties, most of which are still remembered (ironically by comparison) in tinted monochrome largely due to the epoch-making work of David Bailey and Terence Donovan, were drawing to a close, and only two years after the Summer Of Love that heralded a new beginning, the dream was already beginning to turn sour (something that would soon be cemented by Altamont and the Manson murders) and give way to a bitter cynicism about the supposedly brave new world. How much of this was in part due to people who just hadn’t been in the right place at the right time to benefit from what the counterculture had to offer is a moot point, but from the distinctly pessimistic tone explored by filmmakers like Walker, Norman J Warren, Derek Ford, Barney Platts-Mills, Michael Reeves, Alistair Reid and Alan Gibson, it would seem that for every liberated swinging scenester merrily popping pills and cavorting their way through a dozen fluorescent Mod dens of iniquity there were at least three or four more having a thoroughly miserable time and being exploited by the supposedly permissive and ‘laid-back’ society. That’s to say nothing of the sheer violence and nihilism depicted in contemporary American productions such as Angel, Angel, Down We Go, Targets, much of Russ Meyer’s work, and even cheesemeister Roger Corman’s exemplary Wild Angels. And no film, with the possible exception of Walker’s sexploitation masterpiece Cool It Carol, or of course the director’s own Permissive less than a year later, conveys this jaded mindset more effectively than Night, After Night, After Night.
From its opening credits depicting a Thames-side street scene soundtracked by deliciously seedy, almost burlesque lounge music that one can imagine a million dodgy Cockney strippers called Reenie taking their kit off to (and in this film, they do) it’s clear that this isn’t Night Of The Prowler or any of Butchers’ usual cops ‘n’ robbers fare we’re watching, nor is it the cosy fireside horror of Hammer and their imitators. This is sleaze. One hundred-and-one percent grade A flesh-crawling, you’ll need a good bath afterwards sleaze, the cinematic equivalent of Beggars Banquet, Funhouse or, considering the subject matter involved, the later Non Stop Erotic Cabaret. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Marc Almond is a fan of this movie – this could be one of the flickering ‘seedy films’ that album so perfectly describes. If it were a Round the Horne character it would be J. Peasmold Gruntfuttock. Hell, this film is so grubby it even makes Goodbye Gemini, with which I have it coupled on tape, look morally decent by comparison. No wonder, then, when it was released, it actually played mainly in sex cinemas – despite its undoubted horror status.
As usual with films of this nature, what amazes (it shouldn’t after seeing a dozen similar productions, but somehow it does) is that despite its obvious low budget origins, several respectable names appear in the cast – not least of all top-billed Jack May, famous mainly for a lengthy stint in that most venerated of radio soaps, The Archers. The plot’s fairly easy to follow: some nutter is going around Soho, Chelsea and various other ‘happening’ London nightspots stabbing and strangling young girls. Gilbert Wynne (a big star on TV at the time as down-at-heel detective Clegg) is the equally down-at-heel detective (he has a blonde wife with large knockers and smokes in bed, very risqué) in charge of finding him. Said wife gets bumped off very early on, causing the thankless plod to take the whole case rather personally and persecute a young, long-haired, ‘groovy’ and quite frankly unpleasant individual (Donald Sumpter in his first major role!! With hair!!) who unfortunately happens to fit the description given by witnesses and doesn’t do himself any favours by using phrases like “I banged ‘er in the bushes, copper!” and so forth. He’s an obvious scapegoat, though, because – well, I mean, he’s one of them ‘ippies, isnee? Or maybe one of them Mods. Either way, he’s indecent, he lives vicariously, he wears leather and worst of all, (God forbid) he sleeps with women. Regularly. Without being in a relationship. I mean, we can’t have that, can we? What would the Queen think? OK, a bit wide of the mark, but pretty much the reasoning behind the establishment’s opinions at the time.
Meanwhile, a second plot, tied to the first by means of the policeman’s wife being given a lift home one night when he gets called away, unfolds involving a prudish, cold, sexually repressed judge (May), the breakdown of his marriage to his so-vivacious-what’s-she-doing-with-him-then wife, and his constant chastising of his barrister (Terry Scully, also in Goodbye Gemini and a whole host of similar features). Scully is another possible suspect, you see, because (sharp intake of breath) he goes to strip joints (cue more Reenies, Queenies, Eevonnes and Dorises flashing their bits to sub- Hawkshaw horn blarings) and reads porn. Which, as we all know, turns you into a nutter (cf Naughty, Take An Easy Ride etc) There’s a reason for these two stories linking together, of course. Have you guessed what it is yet? That’s right. Sumpter, the obvious red herring, isn’t the guilty man at all – as proved when the murders continue once he’s safely locked behind bars. No, it’s somebody else, it’s…oh, come on, work it out for yourself. And that’s when the cynicism turns on its heel and points in the other direction, criticising the establishment with more venom than it had supposedly reserved for the permissive society.
This in turn leads to a slightly protracted (OK, let’s not mince words – bloody overlong) final scene that runs for nearly a full half-hour, in which our man, his identity revealed, spends several minutes smearing on badly-applied lipstick like some kind of Brit Horror Robert Smith, snogs (and stabs) several photographs of nude ladies (we’ve seen his hands fondling them giallo-style earlier), and then proceeds to stagger the streets of Mayfair and Pimlico in an ill-fitting black leather suit and Beatle wig, thus obviously hoping to throw the rozzers off the scent by convincing them that the murderer is one of them long-haired types that, you know, listens to beat combos in the hit parade and injects marry-ju-warna. Honestly, if you’ve never seen it, you’d never believe it, but if you ever wondered where The Verve nicked the idea for the Bitter Sweet Symphony video from, you might be onto something here. After all, they have a lot of dodgy second hand video shops in that Wigan. Just ask esteemed horror projectionist Tony Meadows… Luckily for all concerned (including a frightened prostitute and, bizarrely, some queer-bashing queers, very confusing) someone has been following the loony all along and the incredulous cops, led by the beleaguered Wynne, are hot on his trail- but not before he gets the chance to utter one of the greatest lines of dialogue in exploitation history (“So sweet, so beautiful, so…EEVILL!”) and indulge in some of the most ridiculous (not to mention utterly pointless except in terms of plot expediency) transvestitism ever seen onscreen, all the more incongruous considering the actor involved.
Thankfully for both the fictitious characters and the real-life viewers (it really has dragged on past its prime by this point), the whole shebang comes to a head where it began – on the banks of the Thames – in a sadly somewhat anticlimactic fashion, with the fiend expiring on a muddy river beach and a nondescript policeman delivering the ultimately unsatisfying final line “I could have sworn he said help me” seconds before the final credits roll. As for Sumpter (who would continue to play a variety of decadent roles in The Black Panther, Our Friends In The North and The Buddha Of Suburbia, in which he found himself being implicitly gobbled off by Naveen Andrews- a worse fate than prison, maybe?) his story remains unresolved and we never find out, in true can’t-be-bothered-to-tie-up-the-loose-ends fashion, whether he was pardoned or not- but then again, that’s low budget filmmaking for you.
It’s unclear as to why Canadian-born Shonteff directed this picture under a pseudonym – maybe his visa had expired, maybe a clause in his contract forbade him from working with any producer other than Richard Gordon, for whom he had directed Devil Doll and The Curse Of Simba - although it’s definitely not a film to be ashamed of. All the prints available (it has never been commercially available on DVD, and the old pre-cert video goes for a fortune) are somewhat scratched or feature dodgy tracking anyway, so it’s difficult to tell whether it’s badly edited and poorly lit or not, as I’ve never seen a pristine copy and I don’t know anyone who has. For the record, the dialogue, whilst not by any stretch sparkling, is believable and tight enough, the killings (including a great bathtubber) are convincing enough without overt gore, and the softcore sex is racy enough to titillate the peccadilloes of the macs that it was aimed at without ever tipping over the line into porno ala John Lindsay.
Cinematically (a relative concept, to be honest, when discussing exploitation films) there are the requisite amount of very interesting shots and angles that one would expect from a film of the period, and possibly because of its hard to find, scratchy, yellow and pink, ropey old copy-of-a-copy status, it actually makes the seedy underbelly of Swinging (or ‘dangling’) London it threatens to expose seem even more fascinating than the films that celebrated its plus points. Then again, I think that about practically EVERY British horror and exploitation film made between 1960 and 1980 – and a few foreign ones lensed here as well.
Sadly, it’s a London that no longer exists, although it’s obvious from this and his later work that Shonteff seemed to derive a lot of inspiration from his adoptive England, in the same way I myself feel inspired by my adoptive Scotland- the only real difference being that back then Britain had a film industry to speak of. His recent, untimely death at the age of 64 means he was denied the chance to be reappraised as a grindhouse auteur (undoubtedly, he was the sort of director for whom such a term was coined) and take his work into the new century, but this film, for all its faults, is an important chapter in Brit horror, coming as it does just on the cusp of two very distinct eras and thus providing the bridge betwixt the two- and proof of how thought-provoking, whether by default or by design, pure trash can sometimes be. Watch it (if you can) and you will see a few issues raised- not least of all where the cynicism and bleakness of vision (so effectively continued on in his masterpiece, Permissive) came from in a man aged a mere 27 at the time. From the scriptwriter maybe? Still, making films about your frustrations at that age is infinitely preferable to the Janis/ Jimi/ Jim option, I suppose, and probably a lot more fun.