Although best-known as the creator of the enduring children’s characters Willy Wonka, Fantastic Mr. Fox and James (he of “and the Giant Peach” fame), writer Roald Dahl more than dipped his toes in darker, more adult works. One of those, “The Night Digger,” was a 1971 British thriller starring his then-wife, Patricia Neal, following her real-life stroke.
Neal is Maura, nearing full-on spinster status as she cares for her elderly, blind, invalid mother (Pamela Brown), with whom she lives in a massive manse befitting of Gothic literature. Although she’s too nice to voice such frustrations to Mom, Maura resents missing out on having an adult life of her own in order to play caretaker.
Help arrives in the form of young Billy (Nicholas Clay, “Excalibur”), who becomes the live-in handyman. Mama Prince is thrilled; Maura, less so, for being kicked out of her own room, until she gets a glimpse of his treasure trail and starts thinking of romance, even if he’s practically young enough to be her son.
“What’s he look like?” the matriarch asks Maura, who answers, “Just a boy: stupid.”
Her indifference is a cover, but she doesn’t know about Billy’s nocturnal activities as a serial killer of women. He has one of the most unique fetishes and ritualistic methods as the screen has seen; you may be caught off-guard for how shocking it had to have been for the early 1970s.
Alastair Reid’s film does have some Hitchcockian flavor to it — the memorable, in-your-face Bernard Herrmann certainly goes a long way in seasoning — but it’s not a standout. Interesting, yes, but not all that memorable, despite a good performance by Neal and an ending that can only be filed under the category of “WTF?” Order it made-on-demand from Warner Archive. —Rod Lott