Weird Western Films: Black Noon (1971)
A television movie in which a preacher comes into a Western town filled with pagans, mostly interesting because it somehow managed to tell the story of the classic folk horror film "The Wicker Man" two years before "The Wicker Man" was released.
By Max Sparber
This 1971 television movie apparently has something of a cult audience, or so insists a book about one of its performers, Gloria Graham. The book, specifically, is "Gloria Grahame, Bad Girl of Film Noir: The Complete Career" by Robert J. Lentz, and I can't blame Lentz for writing a comprehensive overview of Graham's career; she did appear in a shockingly good selection of noir films, including "In a Lonely Place" and "The Big Heat."
Graham is scarcely in this film, though. She plays a nursemaid and spends most of the time fluffing pillows, which wastes her talent, and, all due respect to author Lentz, but it is possible to be too much of a completest. I'm also not sure that "Black Noon" has any real cult following, but for a few online critics who mostly seem ambivalent about the film.
The film has good qualities, including a genuinely dynamite climax, but it's not especially well made. The whole of it feels flat, from the set, which has the anonymity of a studio backlot, to the performances, which frequently feel perfunctory. The film is not especially scary, as the director, Bernard L. Kowalski, didn't seem to have a clue how to direct suspense. (This was a chronic problem for him, despite the fact that he directed horror films, such as "Night of the Blood Beast" and "Attack of the Giant Leeches"; neither of those are especially scary, either.)
But let's put aside the near-anonymity of this television movie, which looks and, for the most part, behaves like any undistinguished television Western. Because the film accomplishes something remarkable with its story, even if it could have been more competent in telling it. Spoilers to follow.
"Black Noon" tells of a tiny rural Western town that has reverted to witchcraft. They survive off a small gold mine that frequently gets tapped out, and apparently have made an agreement with the devil that a new vein of gold will appear every time they murder a minister, so they make a habit of surreptitiously luring ministers in, corrupting them, and then burning them alive in their church.
This is folk horror. Indeed, the film has a lot of elements that seem iconically folk horror including glimpses children in animal masks performing little rituals. In fact, the essential plot of luring an innocent to be a sacrifice that revitalizes the town is the plot to "The Wicker Man," which came out two years after this television movie first aired.
"Wicker Man" did it all better. Befitting a folk horror story, "Wicker Man" used folk music on its soundtrack; "Black Noon" uses a generic, theremin-style soundtrack. "Wicker Man" had a marvelously irritable lead performance from Edward Woodward; "Black Noon" has a game but undistinguished performance from Roy Thinnes. "Wicker Man" cast Christopher Lee as its stately, loquacious heavy; "Black Noon" has Ray Milland acting like he had to do this film to fulfill a contract. "Wicker Man" had a puckish, lusty performance from Britt Ekland; "Black Noon" has a mostly mute performance from Yvette Mimieux, who seems to have been directed to just stand still and try to look spooky.
There is one standout performance, from an actress named Lynn Loring, playing the preacher's wife. She dehydrated in the desert and so is bedbound, and she gets weaker over the course of the show as Mimieux builds a wax poppet of her in the basement and, I don't know, sticks pins in it or something.
This could easily have been the weakest performance in the film, as the character is actually weak and gets weaker. But the worse she gets, the angrier Loring gets, until she's literally frozen to the bed, wild-eyed and hoarsely painting out her anger at her husband, her circumstance, and the whole town. Loring was actually married to Thinnes, her husband in the movie, and she seems determined to goose him, and the whole film, into the sort of frenzied performance befitting a horror film. Alas, she is not successful.
But if you can wait it out, there is a moment at the end of the film when the scheme is revealed, and it is perfectly odd. Thinnes rises to speak in the town church, and rather than give his sermon, he confesses that he has been corrupted in the town, he has broken all of the commandments. As he does so, the assembled congregants laugh at him, their laughter growing with each sin he confesses.
I should also mention that Henry Silva is in the film as a black clad gunfighter, perhaps representing the devil himself. He starts off pretty well, dragging an old man behind his horse and seeming to enjoy it, but by the end of the film he is relegated to hiding behind trees and cackling.
It's a shame, and it shows Bernard L. Kowalski's lack of narrative skills. When you have a gunfighter dressed in black, especially when he might be the devil, the audience is going to expect something big from him at the end, rather than expect for him to become less and less important to the story.
Call it Chekhov's devil gunfighter. You can't show him in the first act unless he's going to go off in the final act.