Tuesday, June 19, 2012

And Soon the Darkness (1970)

Directed by:
Robert Fuest

I originally wrote this film off with a mediocre rating but decided to give it a second shot and I'm glad I did. I now have a new appreciation for it. Two young nurses; reserved and virginal Jane (Pamela Franklin) and the more adventurous and immature Cathy (Michele Dotrice) are spending their holiday away from the hospital taking a bike trip around Europe. While somewhere in France, they stop at a cafe and spot a handsome, sunglasses-sporting stranger (Sandor Elès), who they'll see several more times on their journey. Cathy harmlessly flirts with him and then the girls are on their way through the countryside. Jane's enjoying the peace and tranquility, while Cathy is bored out of her mind. You see, she's looking for a little excitement and seems much more interested in meeting guys than sight-seeing. She'll soon get her wish, just not in the way she'd hoped. The two girls stop by a wooded area to take a brief rest. With the nearest village possibly miles away, Jane suggests they hit the road so they can find lodging before nightfall. Cathy doesn't want to and accuses her friend of being boring and bossy. After an argument, Jane rides off and leaves Cathy behind to hang out her wet underwear on the trees, listen to the radio and catch some sun. It will be the last time Jane sees her friend.

While stopped by a local inn, a French woman tries to warn Jane about something but all she can squeeze out in English is "bad road," which gets Jane to thinking she better head back to the wooded area to find her friend. When she arrives, she finds a camera but no sign of Cathy. The Frenchman Cathy had been flirting with earlier however does show up and introduces himself as Paul. He offers to take Jane back to the village on his motor scooter so she can keep searching. Once there, they learn that no one has seen Cathy pass through. Paul takes off to search for her and Jane finally finds someone who speaks English, a schoolmistress (Clare Kelly), who informs her that three years ago a tourist had been raped and murdered there: the victim of a sex maniac who was never caught. Trapped in a country where few people know English, many of the locals are uncooperative and the one man who offers up help seems shady to put it mildly, Jane's got her work cut out for her.

Many aspects of this low-key British production (filmed on location in France) are quite commendable. The desolation of the area is palpable and the director creatively exploits the miles and miles of straight country road, lush green fields and stirring branches in the forest to sometimes eerie effect. Fuest is also able to slowly amp up the terror and suspense without once resorting to shock effects. The scene of Cathy alone in the woods slowly realizing that someone is there with here is an outstanding set piece and a texbook example of how to stage an effective and scary scene. Ditto for a scene at the very end where one of the suspected killers searches through a junkyard full of trailers looking for Jane, who's hiding in one of them. The mystery aspects of the storyline sufficiently keep you guessing, though they're rather lazily achieved by making every single person in this movie behave suspiciously, even when it makes no sense. There is one character in particular whose sketchy behavior is rather senseless (and frustrating in retrospect). If he'd been forthright the entire time - and he has no real reason not to be - poor Jane would have definitely been spared a whole lot of trouble.

Overall, it's an imperfect but still pretty impressive debut for director Fuest, who'd go on to make his biggest splash the following year with the very successful THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971), which would go on to become a cult classic and was followed by a middling 1972 follow-up. Fuest also made the badly-received sci-fi film LAST DAYS OF MAN ON EARTH (1973), the badly-received all-star-cast Satanism movie THE DEVIL'S RAIN (1975) and the forgettable REVENGE OF THE STEPFORD WIVES (1980). Mr. Fuest passed away earlier this year.

The Anchor Bay DVD has commentary by Fuest and co-producer / co-scripter Brian Clemens. It was remade (from all indications, rather poorly) in 2010.

Frightmare (1974)

... aka: Cover Up
... aka: Frightmare II
... aka: Once Upon a Frightmare

Directed by:
Pete Walker

Family responsibility. Some have it. Some don't. Jackie Yates (Deborah Fairfax) definitely falls into the former category. In fact, what she has to deal with on a daily basis is going to make most people feel like they've got it easy. In 1957, Jackie's parents - father Edmund (Rupert Davies) and stepmother Dorothy (Sheila Keith) - committed crimes so heinous that both of them landed in a mental institution for fifteen years. In the meantime, Jackie's been saddled with the legal responsibility of raising her kid sister, Debbie (Kim Butcher). Now fifteen years old, Debbie is like most teenagers and a defiant of the boundaries and rules set down by her guardian. She refuses to get a job, refuses to go to school, refuses to come home at a decent hour and has been running around with a bunch of violent punks that the police are always after. Unlike most impressionable teens who happen to fall in with a bad crowd, Debbie isn't a follower. She herself is in very much in on the "action" and instigates much of it, including getting revenge on a bartender who refuses to serve her because she's underage by telling her none-too-bright pseudo-boyfriend Alec (Edward Kalinski) that the barman called her a "tart." The gang then waits outside until the place closes and beat the guy up.

As if dealing with delinquent Debbie wasn't enough already, Jackie also has to cater to her parents, who've been released from the asylum and are living a low-key life in a country farmhouse. Dad Edmund begins to think mum Dorothy might be falling back into her old ways again. Since her "old ways" involve murder and cannibalism, you can see why he's become alarmed. Up until now, he and Jackie have been trying to pass of parcels of animal meat for human meat (actually brains), but Edmund has begun to suspect that Dorothy's caught on to them... and he's right. While he's away at his chauffeur's job, Dorothy's been luring lonely or troubled women to their home with an advertisement for tarot readings. Once they get there, she murders them, cannibalizes them and keeps their corpses stored in the barn. Edmund is weak and complacent; totally and hopelessly devoted to his wife to the point of covering up for her crimes, feigning derangement just so that he'd get locked away with her and even helping her to lure victims. While he may not be the one who's actually committing the murders, he's clearly not right in the head either.

Under the circumstances, Jackie is trying to live as normal life as possible. She has a social circle and works as a make-up artist at the BBC. Through friends, she meets and then begins dating Graham (Paul Greenwood), a psychologist. Once he learns that she's been lying to him and seems to be living a double life, and he hears about her troubles caring for Debbie, Graham decides to step in to help (whether Jackie wants it or not). Using his connections in the medical field, he's privy to confidential information about Jackie's parents and what they did to get locked away for so long, so it all finally starts making sense. Meanwhile, Debbie is being investigated for the death of the barman she and the gang beat up (the body is stored in a locked building in the hood of a car). Has young Debbie somehow inherited criminal / psychotic tendencies from her deranged mother?

Frightmare has a lot going for it, but there's mild disappointment in knowing that with just a few tweaks in David McGillivray's script this could have been a great film instead of merely a good film. It begins strongly by centering its horror around a put-upon young woman bearing the emotional and financial burden of a troubled, disturbed family but then seems to put the daughter character on the back burner to concentrate its energies on more formulaic stuff, such as Dorothy's killing spree and Graham's investigation into the Yates family (which reveals little new information). The film just seems to run out of ideas after about an hour and then slowly lurches toward its grim conclusion.

That said, this an otherwise well-made movie with fine technical credits and mostly effective performancs from the cast. Best of all, it boasts a very memorable character in Dorothy, a truly cunning and sneaky psycho. She uses every weapon in her "frail old lady" arsenal to manipulate those around her and deflect attention away from her depraved activities. Dorothy's an expert at playing the victim card: Everyone always gangs up on her and takes everything away from her, she suffers from migraines (which conveniently only become a problem when suspicion is cast upon her), she can't even see her beloved youngest child and, of course, she's oh so lonely out there in the country by herself. The role is superbly played by Keith, whose performance alone bumps this up a point in its rating.

Upon initial release, the reaction to Frightmare was spotty. A few recognized it as being a well-done horror film while the majority wrote it off as trash in very bad taste. In an extremely rare instance of honesty in advertising, the poster for this film reflected the mixed response and included barbs such as "horrendous," "despicable" and "a moral obscenity," flipping these negative critiques into something oddly inticing by inviting audiences to "Judge for yourself." It was a surprisingly forthright yet effective campaign.

In the early 80s, American VHS distributor Prism decided to re-title this film Frightmare II so it wouldn't be confused with one of their previous releases (1981's FRIGHTMARE, which was filmed - and played many theaters - as "Horror Star"). That naturally only made things even more confusing.

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