The dusty and evil 18-wheeler of Duel (1971) cast a large and ominous shadow across the TV landscape; some kid named Spielberg showed that the medium could come across as cinematic with even the simplest of stories: truck chases guy in car. Six years later the Valerie Harper vehicle Night Terror (1977) pulled up to a similar station; and while it’s no Duel, it is an effective thriller that manages to reach its destination before running out of gas.

Originally broadcast on February 7th, Night Terror was part of the NBC Monday Night at the Movies, and was roundly trounced by The ABC Monday Night Movie (and you can forget about The Sonny and Cher Show on CBS); no matter, those who stuck by the Peacock were treated to a suspense-filled show with Harper put through the wringer.

Flip open your faux TV GUIDE for more info:

NIGHT TERROR (Monday, 9pm, NBC)

A woman on a 16 hour drive to Denver is chased by a man after she witnesses him murder a police officer. Valerie Harper, Richard Romanus star.

We open on a highway road, as an unnamed man (Romanus – Mean Streets) blasts holes in a roadside sign with a shotgun, and then says “Good morniiiing” with the help of an artificial voice box. After he hops in his sports car, we turn our attention to the Turner family. Carol (Harper – Don’t Go to Sleep) is completely scattered; her and the family are getting ready to move to Denver, her husband has to be out of town during the move, so she sends the kids ahead to her sister’s place in Denver and her husband will meet up for a second honeymoon before they settle in the Rockies. Complications soon arise; hubby Walter (Michael Tolan – Circle of Fear) is stuck on business longer and can’t meet, and even worse, her son needs an emergency operation in Denver.

Panic stricken, Carol heads out for Denver in the middle of the night, with no gas and unsure how to get there. She pulls up beside a highway patrolman who’s stopped a driver in a yellow sports car for speeding. As she leans out the window to ask the officer for directions to a gas station, our sign blaster does the same to the patrolman; Carol soon flees, but not before the killer sees who she is, and he quickly pursues her, unable to leave any witnesses behind…

Night Terror (AKA Night Drive) pushes a little too heavy (okay, a lot) on its set up; Carol is seen as completely vapid, someone who, as her husband says, “Needs someone to look after her”. Never mind the fact that she runs a large household - Carol has to have stuff written down for her by hubby so she won’t forget. Goodness gracious, how will she survive? Anyway, once it gets past the cringe-worthy sentiment of her helplessness, it settles into a phobia that many people (including myself) can relate to: being piss-poor at directions and lacking confidence on the open road. I’m so horrible that if I’m going somewhere unfamiliar in my own city the missus will send me detailed directions so I can arrive at my destination without killing someone or running my car over an embankment. So I feel you, Carol, I really do; and this is where the breadth of Harper’s talent truly comes into play.

She has a tough role to convey; an anguished mother, panicked at her child being in hospital and desperate to be by his side. Compound that with an inability to find her bearings and a killer hot on her trail, and you have a recipe for first class anxiety that Harper portrays beautifully. As I’ve said, the only thing that’s hard to believe is her being so weak at the start to get to her position of strength as the telefilm progresses. I don’t for a minute buy that weak is even in Harper’s vocabulary.

Director E.W. Swackhamer had a ubiquitous TV presence from the early ‘60s through the mid ‘90s, helming episodes of everything from The Flying Nun, Bewitched, The Rookies, Columbo, to Law & Order; you won’t find any of that Spielberg flash in this particular venture of road rage, but he has a slick style and works very well with the varied cast, including a memorable interlude with a homeless man played wonderfully by John Quade, most memorably known as the leader of The Black Widows in Every Which Way But Loose the following year.

But every movie is only as good as its villain, and Romanus certainly delivers: billed as The Killer in the credits, he’s something of an enigma; he has a scar on his chest and wears dog tags, he’s transporting guns for an unknown voice he talks with on a payphone, and he uses his voice box to sparse yet chilling effect. We can assume he’s a vet, but the psychoses he conveys is all Romanus; smiling, squinting, with the occasional silent howl for punctuation, he’s a fierce and at times feral adversary. And yes, he’s the older brother of Damone from Fast Times at Ridgemont High for those keeping score.

Night Terror tells a simple story well, with a strong cast, especially the cat and the mouse at the forefront. Knowing how strong the mouse is on screen and in real life, you can bet your sweet bippy that she will prevail, directionally challenged or not.

  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.