In the early 70s Hammer Films attempted to expand their horizons, deciding that the usual formula of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee Frankenstein and Dracula vehicles was becoming somewhat tired. One of the solutions was to produce features set in the present day and to introduce younger stars. In 1972 the double bill of Fear in the Night and Straight on Till Morning was released. The latter film starred Rita Tushingham and newcomer Shane Briant, who despite going on to star in several Hammer features is now sadly little remembered. The move to replace Cushing and Lee mostly failed, with Hammer becoming increasingly directionless. The studio lost their appeal as the 70s trudged on, with Straight on Till Morning being one of only a few artistic triumphs.
Along with Ralph Bates, Shane Briant was groomed as Hammer’s new leading man at the time, and although leading rather well in Captain Cronos – Vampire Hunter he is possibly most effective in Straight on Till Morning. Here he plays a rather deranged young man (Peter) who is slowly revealed as a very dangerous killer. Both Briant and Tushingham are excellent in this film.
Brenda (Tushingham) is a northern girl who tells her mother she is pregnant (although she isn’t) and leaves Liverpool for London intent on finding a partner to father a child. An odd decision, but she’s an odd character and let’s be frank here; this is a weird film. Brenda decides to engineer an encounter with Peter by the impulsive means of stealing his dog one evening and then returning it to him the next day. It works. The two embark on a rather offbeat relationship, based partly on some kind of homage to Peter and Wendy in Peter Pan, although this is never explored thoroughly.
Peter Collinson (The Italian Job) directs his only film for Hammer, and the approach comes across at times as an attempt to emulate the Roeg/Cammell partnership of Performance in the film’s erratic and jarring editing technique. Attempts at being art cinema largely fail, although Collinson proves himself as the most versatile of directors. Along with Fear in the Night, Straight on Till Morning was first considered as a tv movie and it does pre-empt the later Hammer House of Horror series for ITV which also effectively used a modern setting for its small screen chillers.
Striaght on Till Morning also reminds of both the films of Pete Walker and of Alfred Hitchcock’s London set Frenzy. But unlike Walker (and even the 1972 Hitchcock) Collinson doesn’t rely on the permissiveness of 70s cinema to sneak in an extra does of sex and violence. Straight on Till Morning plays by the rulebook of suggestion – there is next to no blood spilt on camera although this still results in one of the most shocking films of that decade. This is partly due to the excellent acting and the dark ending, which is one of the tensest on camera.
James Bolam and Tom Bell appear in supporting roles, but their presence is so slight it seems their careers were at a low ebb at the time. It’s Briant and Tushingham’s film. Indeed, Hammer appear to be deliberately avoiding the inclusion of the recognisable supporting cast that usually kept their features bouyant. But never mind, the leads are enough to keep this one afloat. Rita Tushingham is a performer I’ve always felt uncomfortable with but in this film she is superb, almost parodying her ugly duckling persona of the previous decade. I last saw her in the Joe Meek biopic Telstar. Shane Briant still works consistently, although its tricky to name anything notable he’s done in recent years. Peter Collinson didn’t really direct anything more of worth and died in 1980. Straight on Till Morning is glaringly 70s British cinema, and the disturbingly frank shock factor of this film has undoubtedly kept it from television showings and let it sink into undeserved obscurity. A pity.