It’s 1890 and we’re in San Francisco, a city at least as foggy as the London of that period. That fog is put to good use in the opening scene, partially obscuring our view of a woman being killed by a creature with large, hairy hands and long, sharp claws. It’s the fourth such murder to occur in the city recently, and while the claw marks on the victims might suggest the killer was a large animal, the fact that witness reported that the killer wore a black cloak, and a strange carved idol was left beside each body, suggest a human being was the culprit. The newspapers are quick to point up the similarities of the San Francisco murders to those attributed to Jack the Ripper, and the police have had no luck identifying the killer.
It’s the perfect case for man-about-town Brett Kingsford (Leslie Nielsen, playing it straight 15 years before Airplane!), a hypnotist, amateur detective and scientist, master of disguise, and expert in occult matters—basically a San Francisco Sherlock Holmes with a sideline in the supernatural. Kingsford is assisted in his work by Nikola (Charles Bolender, a little person who played in the original Broadway cast of the musical Take Me Along and appeared on seven episodes of Jackie Gleason’s TV series American Scene Magazine), who doubles as a butler, and is sometimes accompanied on his missions by the spirited Evelyn (Judi Meredith), who is engaged to his best friend Robert (Peter Mark Richman).
Kingsford is summoned to police headquarters by Commissioner Harvey Misbach (Gilbert Green), who shows him the idols (all identical) recovered from the first four victims. Kingsford tosses out some Lovecraftian names in speculating what they might represent, but his friend Chi Zang (Peter Brocco in yellowface) says they represent a Sumerian demon, and advises Kingsford to give up the case before he becomes the demon’s next victim. Kingsford doesn’t, of course, and in half no time he is attacked by the clawed, snarling, caped creature; while getting his wounds treated, the doctor (Vaughn Taylor) drops some important clues that lead him to the solution of the murders.
Dark Intruder was made as a pilot for an occult detective TV series under the title “Black Cloak,” which explains why it’s only 59 minutes long and has the pacing typical of a television production. Director Harvey Hart was primarily a television director, many of the supporting actors worked mainly in television, and it was produced by Shamley Productions, whose other credits include the television programs Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour as well as Hitchcock’s 1960 movie Psycho. When the series wasn’t picked up, Dark Intruder was released as a movie, and it works well as a low-budget, stand-alone B-picture.
The production values are pretty good considering it was originally made for television, with the exception of some of the props. The “ivory” idols look like cheap molded plastic (a fact not helped by the actors making no effort to disguise the fact that they’re much too light to be real), and the supposed mummy casing displayed in Kingsford’s living room is embarrassingly bad. On the plus side, the opening credits sequence is quite nice, the costumes and sets are convincing in a television budget sort of way, and there’s enough cleverness in the way the story is spun out, with a nice little button at the end, to make it satisfying. Special bonus: fans of The Simpsons will recognize a key concept from the solution to the mystery, which formed the basis of one of the “Tree House of Horror” episodes. | Sarah Boslaugh
Dark Intruder is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disk include an audio commentary by film historian and screenwriter Gary Gerani, an interview with make-up artist Mike Westmore(11 min.), and trailers for this and three other films.