She goes looking for a lost friend but finds love with a troubled man.
The Night Has Eyes (1942) aka Terror House aka Moonlight Madness is a good mystery concerning a strange man and the woman who loves him but fears he may be a killer. On her school break, teacher Joyce Howard could go where the boys are, which is where her friend and travelling companion Tucker McGuire wants to be at all times. But Howard prefers to spend their vacation time in the gloomy locale of the Yorkshire Moors. She’s a romantic personality who loves long walks in a violent thunderstorm and mysterious places, but she’s also on a “sentimental” mission to learn more about the disappearance of another friend and fellow teacher, a year ago on these same moors. One night during a terrible storm and close call with the deadly bog the two ladies happen upon a house occupied by an aloof, guarded and reclusive composer played by James Mason. Since the rains have flooded the moors and trapped the ladies there for a few days, they kill time searching for a secret room Mason mentions, and very quickly Mason and Howard fall in love. He tells her he was traumatized in the Spanish Civil War, and can no longer keep his mind on music. What he doesn’t tell her is that he knew and loved her missing friend, and that he is deeply troubled. With his help away from home, he urges the ladies to lock themselves in their room at night, for safety, and to leave the house as soon as possible.
When Mason’s housekeeper (Mary Clare) and handyman (Wilfrid Lawson) return from their trip to town, McGuire leaves but Howard stays back, committed to learning more about Mason’s misery and her friend’s disappearance. Clare was Mason’s nurse in the war and issues dire warnings about her boss’s mental state. On a moonlit night, he has to take his special medication (for a moment I thought this would turn into a werewolf movie), then he staggers out into the grounds and kills Lawson’s pet monkey. Howard’s decision to bring Mason a therapist for his violent tendencies backfires and leads to the discovery that poor Evelyn went through this same experience with him the year before. What she finds after that includes nail-biting suspense and unforgettable screams.
This is a great little picture that punches above its low budget, offering a nice mixture of horror and noir style with Hitchcock thrills, romance and gothic melodrama. This was the first of four consecutive films director Leslie Arliss would make with Mason; the ones that followed were the huge hits The Man in Grey (1943), Love Story (1944) and The Wicked Lady (1945). Both the cheeky man-hunter played by McGuire and a charming doctor (John Fernald) who has his eye on Howard, lighten things up in just the right doses, while everything at the moors is dark, foggy, haunted and disturbing. Much is made of the three paths through the bog but only one safe way out, so you could make an educated guess where the climactic action takes place.
Mason was good at these roles, he made it look easy to be this mysterious and potentially dangerous and still enchant a woman. He wavers between wanting Howard’s help and pushing her away, is happy then withdrawn, every bit as volatile as you’d expect from a frustrated artist and bitter veteran. But Mason doesn’t overplay any of it, which displays his talent and also matters to the plot’s final twist.
Joyce Howard, who also co-starred with Mason in They Met in the Dark (1943), reminds me of Ann Harding. Her ethereal look is initially disguised behind prim, bookish schoolmarm styling. With just the (wet) clothes on her back during the extended stay at Mason’s, she ends up wearing his clothes and wellies as well as his grandmother’s ornate gown, a Jane Austen dress complete with low neckline, puffy sleeves and bustle. Just the outfit for lounging around listening to Mason’s war stories and reawakening his love of the piano. Howard might seem flyweight at first but she’s as determined as she is naive, and otherworldly enough to make us believe in her mania for running into the deadly moors, her ability to sense Evelyn’s presence in the guest room, her attraction to the weird and unpredictable Mason, and his for her. He wants to protect her from something awful, and with satisfying storytelling, and a couple shocking moments, The Night Has Eyes reveals what that terrible thing is.