Black Noon (1971)
Hello all, Nate here, finally getting off my butt and doing something productive with my free time (summers are such a chore). This week Pam and I will be reviewing a forgotten made-for-TV horror movie from an era where such things might actually scare television viewers on any given Tuesday night in that sweet spot after the nightly news and just before Johnny Carson. Extra bonus points for it being one of the rarest of genre doublers, the "horror western"!
A note on the screen caps. From what I can tell this movie has never been released on DVD and maybe not even on tape (hey, Shout Factory, get on this). As such, the only copies that are online come from some guy Betamaxing his TV set 40 years ago when this first came out, storing the tape in his leaky basement until a few years ago, and then burning the tape to a crappy DVD-R and uploading it to youtube. Print quality is thus quite compromised. But still, this is the only way you will ever see this movie so that's ok, we must hold on to our cultural treasures any way possible.
Anyway, we open in the hot and arid American Southwest in the late 1880s or so (no specifics are given or really needed). Preacher John and his wife Whatszername from out East are headed across the unforgiving desert to a new job in a frontier town when disaster strikes. Their wagon breaks down, their water runs out, their cellphone battery dies, the wife's hair starts to get frizzy, the vultures start circling, and it looks like they're gonners.
Here's an idea, ride the horse towards the hills.
Just then they are saved by some locals from a nearby town and brought back there to recover. Preacher John, a young and earnest man of God who looks like a young Matthew MacConaughey and quotes King James scripture with a commendable excitement, is thankful for their rescue and sets about trying to repay the people for their good deed. He gives a pro-bono sermon, he (apparently) heals a crippled boy, and he generally makes everyone like him. That's not hard to do as he's a handsome, soft-spoken man with perfect hair.
Preacher John is rather dreamy.
This town, which is named El Ns5kfa;sgf;asf, which is Spanish for "Why the hell can't I get subtitles on these old movies?", is populated by a bunch of extremely nice, but extremely weird people. Everyone is a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist, no one even has a gun, and everyone talks like simple-minded Quakers. Lately the town has been hit by a string of setbacks that has them wondering if they have a future here at all. The only thing keeping this village from blowing away in the wind is a nearby gold mine that still sputters out enough to keep the lights on. It's a town with some problems to be sure.
Everyone shakes hands, how quaint.
That said, this movie can ever seem to settle on just what kind of town this really is. Sometimes it's a one-horse/dead-horse backwoods ramshackle rathole where everyone struggles to survive, and other times it's a large, well-watered town with a healthy economy, regular US Mail service, semi-paved sidewalks, and an electrical power grid, sitting astride a major trade artery to the coast that allows everyone in town to be dressed in spotlessly frilly dresses and tailored "frontier suits". This inconsistency is probably just due to the limitations/advantages of whatever "Western town" set the filmmakers rented for the shoot, but it still bugs me that no one else noticed.
They do have cats, that's a plus.
Preacher John is taken in by Caleb, the town's patriarch and quite possibly the nicest, kindest, gentlest man in the universe. And yet, you get the sense that there's something not quite right about the old man, like he's faking it or that he's brainwashed or something. Caleb is played by former Oscar-winner Ray Milland, slumming it out in a low point in his otherwise topshelf career, one of several sorta well-known actors in this movie.
Caleb, to no one's surprise, has a smoking hot supermodel daughter named Deliverance (really, no really). When she's not gliding through scenes in a low-cut dress with her bombshell blonde hair all gussied up like it's Spring Formal time, the wispy Deliverance is busy charming snakes, burning out local churches, sacrificing owls, and making voodoo dolls out of candle wax (seriously). If any of the milquetoast townsfolk know she's flat-out pants-crappingly evil, they're not talking. And neither is Deliverance talking, as she's a mute due to some oddly suspicious childhood illness. Her lack of dialogue actually makes her even more scary in a way, as you are forced to stare into those cold, steely blue eyes and see only blackness and death.
Deliverance always brings along her own wind machine for dramatic hair waves.
Did I mention that Deliverance was drop dead gorgeous? Because Preacher John sure noticed, and some set-up scenes in the first act make it pretty clear that he's fighting the inner temptation to taste the forbidden fruit of adultery with this sultry blonde from the Old West. Preacher John's wife, who is attractive in her own way but not at all in Deliverance's league, can see that her husband's eyes and heart are drifting away from her and she's pissed. The several extended scenes with Preacher John and his wife talking, as he tries to deflect her worries without much success and she grows more and more twitchy and concerned, are the highlight of the movie so far. As I've said a hundred times before, well-written dialogue delivered by competent actors can elevate even the lousiest genre movie.
Praying won't help you.
To add spice to this stew, there's this lone, wandering, man-in-black gunslighter named Moon (played by the terrifically scary Henry Silva) who is terrorizing the town just because he can. Moon rolls in whenever he feels like it, roughs up anyone who looks at him wrong, steals and loots at will, and takes "love slaves" from the female population. And because the town's "religion" is extreme non-violence and no-matter-what pacifism, they just let Moon do what he wants, paying whatever ransom he asks, handing over any victim he desires, all without even trying to lift a finger.
Moon rides into town, malice in his black heart.
You want to hate them for this, but the townspeople are just so darned nice that you can't. They smile and wave and sing a cheery song no matter what the storm clouds bring, and that's kinda encouraging. And they want Preacher John to stay and be their own pastor, they'll even build him a new church and pay him a nice salary. Tempting to be sure, but even he has to admit that there's something spooky going on in this town. He keeps seeing hallucinations of a bruised and bloodied version of himself in mirrors, livid scars appear on his face for no reason, and people seem to be going out of their way to "keep him there". It's like he's a guest in the Hotel California, once you check in, you can never leave, even though the staff is pleasant and the food is great.
His "dream self" has seen better days.
Not to mention that Preacher John's increasingly frail and mentally unstable wife is convinced that the local children are sacrificing animals to some pagan god right outside their window at night and that someone is poisoning her so that she can't travel and they have to stay longer here. She's also convinced that Deliverance, along with having her slutty eyes on her husband, is some sort of devil girl in a white dress. And she may be right, everything we've seen so far has us guessing that there's something seriously scary and frightening going on behind the scenes in this picturesque, sleepy little town.
Best to just close the blinds and not look.
But, and I'm kinda sad to say this, it's not really scary at all. Producing effective horror on television, and I include here DVD movies watched at home and even internet streaming services, is always going to be much harder job to pull off than its counterparts in the theater. The main problems, in my humble opinion, have nothing to do with the actual content on the screen and more to do with what's in the room with you. When you watch a scary movie, say The Exorcist, in the theater, the very nature of the darkened viewing space, the monstrously-sized screen, the thunderous audio system, and the communal nature of crowds all combine to make it effectively scary down to your bones. But watch The Exorcist at home on your couch with your family wandering around doing other things, kids asking for food, cats asking for food, the microwave dinging, Facebook scrolling without you, and suddenly even puking, self-mutilating Linda Blair isn't nearly as scary, no matter how many times she stabs herself with a crucifix. Watching a theatrical horror movie on DVD is one thing, but when you watch a made-for-TV horror show, or one that is on network television in a chopped form, what might be the even bigger problem are all the mandatory regular commercial breaks. No matter how hard a producer/director will try to set up a suspenseful and frightening series of scenes, when every 14 minutes you have to break away for 3 minutes of eye-blasting commercials about Chevy trucks and stuffed-crust pizzas, you're just never going to "scare your audience" in any lasting way. So, while Black Noon has its tense and spooky moments to be sure, it's just not scary in any way and that's a shame.
Well, this guy's hat is pretty scary.
Anyway, I ramble, back to the movie at hand. You probably have noticed that, unlike my nature, I've not banged on the details of this movie too much. That's because it's actually pretty good, even if it's not nearly as frightening as it wants to be. Sure, the wardrobe department put dainty vests on all the men and everyone has blinding white teeth. And sure the extras playing the townspeople were clearly just random strangers and homeless people picked up off a street corner in Los Angeles, bused up into the valley to the filming location, and given a few lines written down on cigarette wrappers. And, ok, sure, the music cues are stolen from a Scooby Doo cartoon, especially the ultra-annoying "whozaawwooooo!!!" electronica reverb sound effect whenever something spooky happens on screen. And, while I'm on it, the lighting on the interior sets sucks balls, everything is too damn dim and murky. And don't get me started on Preacher John's '70s porn star perm and manicured nails! And that...
You know what, I should stop here and turn this over to Pam before I start to get really mean. It's a good movie, not a great movie, certainly not any sort of "hidden gem" or "undiscovered classic", but it's been pretty watchable so far. Pam, is that rapscallion Moon returning to the town? And did he really just say that he was taking the fair Deliverance to be his latest sex slave? What will happen?
And what the hell is up with this lady's hat?
Yes, Nate, Moon's back again, and he's got his lustful eye on beautiful Deliverance. However, he's got his lustful eye on something else too, namely the new vein of gold the townspeople have just discovered in the mine they thought was played out. Oh, can this town ever catch a break? What new sufferings await them? Before I get to the gory stuff, as an aside, I notice that Moon seems to be looking to Paladin as inspiration for his clothing choices. He's dressed head-to-toe in solid black. Yeah, not very comfortable or practical for wearing in hot dusty deserts, I can't imagine why they picked it. This might explain Moon's bad disposition, he's burning up from wearing black in 100-degree heat and exhausted from washing his clothes multiple times a day to get rid of the dust (closeups show his clothes are spotless). Anyway, whatever his motivations, he comes riding up to the site where the townspeople are hard at work building the new church, conveniently located in the middle of town, with wooden buildings close by. Keep this in mind, it'll be of interest later.
And he's wearing a neck tie, seriously.
Foolishly, Caleb tries to bribe Moon to leave them alone by promising him a share of the newly-discovered gold, which Moon may well not have known about until Caleb spilled the beans. Moon, though, is currently more interested in Deliverance. He grabs her and knocks Caleb down when he tries to stop Moon. During this, the entire town stands passively by and says not a word. Moon even throws his gun on the ground and dares them to try something, but nobody moves a muscle. Does anybody but me wonder how these cowed rabbits managed to build a town and survive in the middle of the desert?
Moon takes his prize.
Preacher John certainly doesn't. We see Moon dragging Deliverance down the street, when a shot rings out and Moon falls. Preacher John is Deliverance's savior, having picked up Moon's discarded pistol and shot Moon in the back. Lucky for Deliverance that Preacher John is a better shot with a pistol than a minister of the Gospel has a right to be! It's not easy for an inexperienced man to hit a moving target accurately with a pistol.
Yes, that is a gun.
Both Preacher John and Mrs. Preacher John look horrified at what he's done. Given their stoutly pacifistic principles, the townspeople ought to be shocked, too, but that's not the case. Instead, they hasten to assure Preacher John that he did a good thing. I wonder if they're all just cowards? As a finale, Deliverance clasps the preacher's hands, gazes lovingly into his eyes, and manages to stammer out "Thank you." Mrs. Preacher doesn't look too pleased at this. I probably shouldn't poke fun at a moment of such emotional crisis, but I have to say that Lynn Loring, the actress who plays the preacher's wife, manages to open her eyes wider in this scene than I would have thought was physically possible.
Got the part just because of this skill.
The action pauses (commercial break) and resumes back at Caleb's house. Mrs. Preacher, it seems, was seriously distraught from the day's events and is now back in bed. Deliverance has attempted to recover from the morning's trauma by gussying herself up in a frilly pale blue dress, cut low as are all her dresses, and pulling her hair back into a discreetly-teased Jan Brady-type 'do, minus the little corkscrew curls at the sides. (No way can you get hair that particular color without modern hair-coloring products.)
And other times she looks like an extra on Charlie's Angels.
Preacher John continues to agonize about his wife's mysterious illness but doesn't seem to be in any hurry to leave town. Caleb, his Bible-quoting assistant Joseph, the preacher, and Deliverance are all downstairs soothing their nerves with a little brandy, while Caleb's spooky housekeeper is upstairs sneaking up on Mrs. Preacher, who is sound asleep in bed. The housekeeper is carrying a pair of scissors, and I fear for Mrs. Preacher, but all the housekeeper does is cut off a chunk of Mrs. Preacher's hair. I'm not surprised when the scene shifts to Deliverance patting the hair onto the head of a wax doll. Incidentally, Deliverance's hairstyle has changed completely.
Deliverance has some sculpture talent, I'm jealous.
Preacher John finally suggests half-heartedly that maybe he and his wife ought to move on to their original destination, but Caleb doesn't have any trouble convincing him to stay until the church is finished. Once she wakes up, Mrs. Preacher expresses her opinion on the matter by shrieking like a madwoman that they have to leave tomorrow, and she accuses her husband of wanting to stay so he can be with Deliverance, which I totally believe. Mrs. Preacher is practically foaming at the mouth, and it appears that she wins the argument, but the next morning, when the formerly crippled boy tells Preacher John how sorry he is that the preacher's leaving, you can see the completed church behind their backs. Did Mrs. Preacher give in and agree to a little delay, or was the church finished overnight? We saw in the scene with Moon that only the frame was up, so finishing it overnight was some impressive (impossible?) achievement in a time when only hand tools would have been available. (Granted, it wouldn't have been necessary to install wiring or plumbing, but still...)
Stain glass windows and everything.
Anyway, the preacher takes a final walk around town and ends up at a little pond. As he washes his face, he's momentarily shocked to see the bloodied beaten-up version of himself in the water, but he's immediately distracted by the sight of Deliverance in yet another low-cut 1971 prom dress. For somebody who's been mute for years, Deliverance is surprisingly articulate, and she tries to convince Preacher John that his wife is "sick," and that catering to her delusions will only make her worse. Wait a minute, the preacher says his wife insists on leaving "tomorrow." So it's still the same day? Those townsfolk ought to start a construction business, they'd make a fortune! You can tell Preacher John is having a hard time resisting Deliverance's arguments, especially when she bolsters them with a reading from the Song of Solomon. However, he stays true to his holy calling and leaves to return to his wife, leaving Deliverance sitting there stroking her cat and looking rather put out.
Back at Caleb's house, Preacher John holds his wife's hand as she lies sleeping in bed. Since it's clearly late morning and she's so sound asleep she doesn't know he's there, you'd think that by now he might be figuring out that maybe something really is physically wrong with her. But no, he goes back downstairs and has some more brandy with Caleb and Joseph, who seem perfectly willing to spend the morning drinking with the preacher. Clearly they weren't the ones who got the church built so fast. Caleb makes one more attempt to talk Preacher John out of leaving, but he nobly insists that they must go, otherwise his poor fragile wife might have a complete breakdown. He does, however, promise to preach a sermon in the new church before they leave.
After an entire movie of nothing but medium shots, they insert here a single scene of nothing but tight close-ups. That's a sign of re-shoots by an different director.
That night, Preacher John dreams of being chased by the bloody man, shooting Moon, and kissing Deliverance. However, in his dream Moon just will not lie down and die, and when the preacher wakes up, he feels the need to go to Moon's grave and recite the 23rd psalm. As further evidence of the townspeople's efficiency, they've not only dug his grave, they've already put a tombstone with his name on it in place. Sadly, Deliverance's sudden appearance somewhat distracts the preacher from his ministerial duties, in fact causing him to drop his Bible and embrace her passionately. What he doesn't see, because his attention is fully occupied elsewhere, is that Moon is standing in the background grinning at them.
They're kinda cute together.
The scene shifts (another commercial break), and it's not clear if Preacher John did anything more than kiss Deliverance, although at the end of the scene Moon's expression changed from a grin to a frown, so I fear the worst. Whatever he did in the night, though, in the morning he's upstairs helping his wife pack. Deliverance is also at work, twisting the head of the wax doll with the wig made out of Mrs. Preacher's hair (and I can't understand how she didn't miss the loss of such a substantial amount of hair, especially when she tried to put her hair up). This causes Mrs. Preacher to moan and faint, at which point Caleb says that it appears they'll have to stay a little longer.
Deliverance in her evil candle workshop.
Preacher John doesn't seem too dismayed. In fact, he leaves Mrs. Preacher still unconscious and goes to the new church to preach his sermon. As it happens, the topic of his sermon is remarkably appropriate. It's based on the question, "Who can know what is in another's heart?" The townspeople all sit solemnly in their pews, dressed in their best, and stare at him attentively -- at first. As he rambles on, you catch a glimpse of a covert smile here and there among the congregation. He's taking a long time to get to his point, but it appears that he's planning to confess his faults. Since Deliverance and her father are sitting in the front pew, this could get exciting. And it does, but in a different way than you might first expect. As his sermon proceeds, the smiles become more open, then change to laughter.
He's flaming out here.
It quickly becomes obvious that it's not because of his poorly-thought-out sermon. He finally gives up and goes back to his wife, who is still unconscious and might actually be dead. As he left the church, there was some distortion from his point of view when he looked out over the congregation, suggesting that he wasn't in quite his right mind. When he looks up from his wife, he sees that Caleb, Joseph, Deliverance, and some other people have come into the room. It also seems to have gotten dark in the room. Any suspicion that Preacher John had a little too much of Caleb's brandy and the townspeople were laughing at his inebriated state is quickly dispelled. Joseph smilingly tells the preacher that an eclipse has occurred, which is something they'd been waiting for. Sweet old Caleb says that it wasn't just bad luck that they got lost in the desert, the townspeople changed the road signs to confuse them. (Road signs? In the desert?)
Stock footage eclipse, nice.
The climax comes when Moon walks into the room, good as new. Joseph casually informs Preacher John that the town has a covenant with Hell, and Caleb smiles broadly as he tells Preacher John that the townspeople are going to perform their own ceremony, for which they need a pure man who has become corrupted. And by the way, they're not from Connecticut, but from a town in Massachusetts. This causes the townspeople to laugh uproariously, as Preacher John stares at them in horror.
Damn, Henry Silva freaks me right the hell out.
I'm sure that by now you all know what's coming, it's just a question of how. We next see Preacher John, stripped to the waist, hands tied behind his back, hanging upside-down by a rope tied to a beam in the new church. Which is engulfed in flames. As it burns, the entire town stands around, chanting something I couldn't quite make out. Something like "Come black, go black, caridon, galou..."
Ahh!!! A little kid wearing a Satanic bumblebee mask!
Next scene: a modern station wagon on a dirt road in the desert. The hood is raised, father is poking around under it, Mother is in the car, a little boy is running around. The car refuses to start, but help is close at hand. A pickup drives up, with Caleb at the wheel and Deliverance and Joseph sitting beside him. They tow the station wagon back to their town, and as the station wagon passes by a sign reading "San Melas" (which must have been what Caleb was saying before when he referred to the town), the reflection in the truck's side mirror shows "Nas Salem." And with that, the movie ends.
As in, the notorious "Salem witch hunts".
I can't come down too hard on this movie. Sure, it appears that the wardrobe, makeup, and hairstyles were all obtained from the local mall. Of course there was the fact that the church was built faster than was humanly possible. And at the end, when the church is burning, there's no sign of anything at all being around it. Remember when I pointed out that the church was being built in the middle of town, with other buildings close by? But these were probably due to a low budget. What the movie did really well was keep us in suspense until the last few minutes, wondering whether or not there was something very wrong going on in town, or if the preacher's wife was losing her mind and imagining things. And the climactic scene, where the church is burning and the townspeople are standing there chanting, is genuinely chilling. It's a shame the only way you can watch it seems to be the blurry poor-quality versions posted on Youtube, but even so, it's worth watching.
Is there anything you'd like to add, Nate?
No, Pam, not much other than a begrudging thumbs-up for Black Noon. Given a bigger budget, a theatrical release, and an R-rated script, this could have been a pretty spooky movie. I'm surprised it hasn't been remade yet, the whole idea of an immortal Satan-loving Voodoo town is a good plot-hook (or maybe it has be remade and I don't know about it?).
FYI, Yvette Mimieux, the actress that played Deliverance, is super hot.
Written in June 2012 by Nathan Decker and Pam Burda.
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that's between you and the vengeful wrath of your personal god...