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  Night Digger, The Hit The Road
Year: 1971
Director: Alastair Reid
Stars: Patricia Neal, Pamela Brown, Nicholas Clay, Jean Anderson, Graham Crowden, Yootha Joyce, Peter Sallis, Brigit Forsyth, Sebastian Breaks, Diana Patrick, Jenny McCracken, Bruce Myles
Genre: Horror, Drama, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Maura Prince (Patricia Neal) has a part time job at the local hospital on the outskirts of London where she teaches stroke victims in learning to recover and speak again. She had experience of this herself when she fell ill some years ago, and the head doctor asks her to stay on and take up the post full time, but she declines because she feels she has to look after her blind, adoptive mother (Pamela Brown). The mother is a controlling sort, but Maura's guilt if she left her, after all the older woman had done for her when she was sick, keeps her under her thumb...

So what we need in this scenario is another character to upset the apple cart, and he arrives in the figure of a young man who claims to be the new gardener, Billy (Nicholas Clay), roaring up on a motorbike which carries the few, meagre possessions that he has and with a yarn to spin about losing everything else in the farmhouse fire which killed his mother. We never find out if what he says is true, but if you've ever seen this type of psychological horror or thriller before, especially from this period, you'll be well aware that such polite young men are not to be trusted thanks to them harbouring some dangerous personality quirk.

So it is the case here, in a set up reminiscent of the Albert Finney remake of Night Must Fall, not a work fondly recalled by many people, but the screenwriter here evidently thought it would make for a decent template for his efforts. Interestingly, that writer was Roald Dahl, now best known, and rightly so, for his classic children's novels, but also an author who liked to dabble in the macabre, mainly with his cruel, twist-laden short stories. That aspect of his work was well to the fore here, written as a vehicle for his wife Patricia Neal and including a stroke for the character which mirrored the actress's own medical misfortunes, though otherwise he seemed to be pretty down on poor old Maura.

Maybe Neal was the sort of actress nobody could accept having a fine time of it for too long, as many of her best known roles would depict that kind of twist of fate, but The Night Digger, as it transpired, was not one of her best known roles. As the old before her time Maura, she was sympathetic but foolish if she thought she and Billy could forge ahead in a new life together considering what he got up to in his spare time. He was the title character and he was actually running away from the dark shadows in his own mind, something which he finds catching up with him and there's nothing he could do about it - he could of course have turned himself in to police, or even visited a psychiatrist, but, well, he doesn't.

What Bily gets up to once the sun goes down is rape and murder, the staple of this sort of suspense piece of this era, tying his victims up, doing unspeakable things (we imagine - the camera cuts away before this gets too gruesome) and burying the bodies in a road due for resurfacing, the ideal hiding place. If this was sounding grim, that's because it was, with the Victorian mansion the Princes live in one of the most depressing homes in horror, not because it was a classic of the art, but because it was all too believable as a place where these two miserable women would spend their lives. If there was humour, it wasn't especially funny, more weird, with Mrs Prince mistakenly believing the local vicar and his wife are about to get sex change operations to swap genders so she can become the vicar - hilarious, right? With some famous faces like Peter Sallis, Yootha Joyce and Likely Lads star Brigit Forsyth as one of the victims, this was a British film all right, but the ending was unforgivably murky, leaving an off-kilter impression though Bernard Herrmann's score was solid.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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