“There’s a killer on the road.
His brain is squirming like a toad.”
So sang Jim Morrison in the song Riders on the Storm. Now, whatever you may think of Jim Morrison and the Doors (personally, I think the music was good, Jim was pretentious as Hell, and I look cute in my Doors t-shirt), this is a perfect description of the character who is at the center of the 1977 film, Night Terror. He’s played by Richard Romanus and, in the credits, he’s simply called The Killer. The Killer spends his times driving up and down the highway, killing people seemingly at random. We never learn why exactly the Killer does what he does, though the film does offer up a few hints. For one thing, he has no voice. He carries an electrolarynx with him and holds it up to his throat whenever he wants to speak. Of course, he only does this two times in the film and, both times, it’s to basically howl with rage. In another scene, he can clearly be seen to be wearing military-style dog tags. Given when this film was made and the unfortunate popularity of the “deranged Vietnam vet” trope in the 70s and 80s, it’s easy to pick up on what exactly the film is implying.
Night Terror follows one night in the life of both The Killer and Carol Turner (Valerie Harper). Carol is just trying to get to Denver, where her son is in the hospital. When she sees a police officer pulling over a sports car for speeding, Carol decides to ask the cop for directions. Unfortunately, the sports car belong to The Killer and, as soon as the cop turns his back on him, out comes the shotgun. Carol slams down on the accelerator and speeds off, with the Killer pursuing her in own his vehicle. Unfortunately, Carol’s station wagon (which comes with wood paneling because, again, this is a movie from 1977) is nearly out of gas. What follows is a fairly tense game of cat-and-mouse, as Carol tries to hide from the Killer while the Killer stalks the highway, relentlessly searching for her. Along the way, a few familiar character actors pop up. John Quade is a homeless man living in a gas station. The great Nicholas Pryor is another motorist, one who proves to be not much help. Making things all the more dangerous for Carol is that the Killer knows what she looks like but she has no idea what the Killer looks like.
Night Terror owes an obvious debt to Steven Spielberg’s Duel and a host of other 70s car chase films. While Night Terror really can’t compare to the Duel, it does do a good job of creating and maintaining suspense. Fortunately, the film never makes the mistake of tying to turn Carol into some sort of badass action girl. She’s just an average person who has found herself in a terrifying situation and, as played by Valerie Harper, she’s never less than relatable. Richard Romanus, meanwhile, makes for a terrifying killer. The fact that he occasionally flashes a rather child-like smile only serves to make his single-minded pursuit of Carol all the more frightening. We never learn much about what’s led The Killer to becoming what he is but Romanus gives such an intense performance that we don’t need to understand him in order to be scared of him. He’s a nightmare come to life.
Night Terror ends on a somewhat awkward note, as if the filmmakers suddenly remembered that they were making a made-for-TV movie as opposed to a feature film. But, that said, Night Terror is an effectively scary and suspenseful road film. It can currently be viewed on YouTube.