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DVD Review: Night Watch (1973)

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It doesn’t really embrace its Grand Guignol roots until its deliriously over-the-top final act, but Elizabeth Taylor chows down on the scenery all the way through in Night Watch, an uneven horror film with a nifty — if hardly shocking — ending. Taylor’s histrionic performance as insomnia-afflicted housewife Ellen Wheeler starts at melodrama and veers into camp quickly, but it takes the rest of the film some time to catch up.

Based on the play by Lucille Fletcher, Night Watch finds Ellen Wheeler in a fragile emotional state, and there’s little help to be found from her distant husband, John (Laurence Harvey, in one of his last roles). Unable to sleep, she’s plagued by visions of her former husband, who was killed in a car wreck while cheating on her with a younger woman.

The sleepless nights lead Ellen to peering out the window at an ancient, boarded-up house next door and, one night, she spots a man sitting in a chair by the window; he’s dead, covered in blood, and bears a striking resemblance to her first husband.

As Ellen spirals into an all-consuming nightmare, those around her are forced to assume her mental state is deteriorating. After all, the cops don’t find anything in the house even after repeated visits and her frequent imbibing and pill-popping don’t exactly inspire confidence in her mental acuity. Sure, the gardening next-door neighbor (a nicely ambiguous Robert Lang) is digging a hole that really seems like the exact size for a body, but isn’t he just a nice old man planting trees?

Ellen gets little sympathy from her husband or her old school pal Sarah (Billie Whitelaw), who’s staying with them and is engaged in an affair that Ellen may know more about than she lets on. As the film progresses, Ellen becomes more and more emotionally isolated, and Taylor’s overly demonstrative performance comes more into focus as it becomes clear she’s operating on a totally different wavelength than everyone else.

Director Brian G. Hutton underplays almost everything apart from Taylor’s performance. The low-key nature of many scenes works well in contrast to her hysterics, but it makes for some plodding interludes when Liz isn’t onscreen. But Hutton sure goes for broke with the finale — presaged by several earlier nightmare sequences — and the bloody, rather graphic climax raises the level of the rest of the film in retrospect.

Warner Archive’s remastered burn-on-demand release of the film is solid, with a healthy layer of ’70s era film grain preserved and adequate sharpness and color reproduction. No extras are included.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.