GORE IN THE STORE
AND SOON THE DARKNESS ****
Directed by Robert Fuest. Starring Pamela Franklin, Michele Dotrice, Sandor Elès, John Nettleton, Clare Kelly. Thriller, UK, 99 minutes, cert 15.
Restoration released on Blu-ray and DVD 14th October 2019 by Studio Canal.
A disheartening cycling holiday, shifty locals and an unsolved murder come together to shock and chill in AND SOON THE DARKNESS, an enjoyably tense, but now largely forgotten, 1970’s British suspense thriller, which is getting a glossy Blu-ray and DVD restoration re-release this month courtesy of Studio Canal.
Two young holidaying English women; sensible Jane (Pamela Franklin) and flighty Cathy (SOME MOTHERS DO ‘AVE ‘EM’s Michele Dotrice; someone that I honestly wasn’t expecting to see crop up here) are cycling off the beaten track in rural France. Unfortunately the boredom of unending empty countryside vistas soon frays their friendship, culminating in a spat that separates the two. However, upon finding out from a foreboding local that the route they are cycling is a ‘bad road’ where a murder once occurred, Jane is eager to reconnect with Cathy before nightfall, but Cathy is now nowhere to be found. Has she simply moved on to the next village or has she faced a fate worse than life with Frank Spencer? So Jane, alone in a strange place surrounded by suspicious and largely unhelpful locals, must find the truth… but who should she trust? The handsome yet mysterious moped man? The ageing English teacher? The policeman who looks like Alec Guinness cosplaying as Inspector Clouseau? Or even perhaps the eccentric old deaf man who pops a pair of knickers on his head and then shows off his war medals? Okay she can probably automatically rule him out.
Director Fuest is maybe best known for his two campy comic horror ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES movies but, in contrast to the goofy gore of those, this is a stripped down and relatively gritty watch. It’s not particularly frightening, apart from a very effective third act jump scare, but it is consistently tense and engaging. It’s leisurely paced, but never boring, and the 99 minutes fly by. The horror mostly arises from the tension of not knowing what exactly is going on, and who the true villain is as new figures appear, each more shady than the last.
Surprisingly for a thriller with ‘darkness’ in the title it is largely shot in bright open spaces, yet still maintains an effectively creepy vibe. The wide shots of the bare country landscapes, and the blank blue skies, help convey the sense of isolation that our leads find themselves in. This isolation is further added to by most of the supporting characters only speaking in French. Music is also used sparingly, with many effectively implemented sinister silences, all adding up to a sense of increasingly cloying unease.
I was initially concerned, due to the ‘young women in peril’ plot and the fact that it’s an early 1970's production,that it could be uncomfortably gratuitous and exploitative but it's actually fairly restrained. There’s thankfully not too much here that would be troubling for modern audience’s adjusted social attitudes.
The central performances are solid if somewhat unremarkable. Jane is not going to rival Laurie Strode or Ellen Ripley as an iconic final girl, but she and Cathy both feel enough like real people that you care whether they make it safely back to Blighty. The rogue’s gallery of rural weirdoes are also well cast and striking, adding to the enveloping menace.
In terms of the actual Blu-ray disc, it looks fantastic. Studio Canal have done a truly impressive job with the restoration. There are not too many extras included but there is a very informative interview with the ever encyclopaedic genre expert Kim Newman, and also two audio commentaries; one with writer Brian Clemens and director Robert Fuest and another with film historian Troy Howarth. There's a wealth of knowledge here about a somewhat obscure film, so it’s definitely worth a buy if that’s something that particularly interests you.
Overall, this is a chilling neglected gem of a thriller. It's not going to blow your mind, as the plot follows fairly well trodden tropes, but if you're a fan of classic British cinema, or understated thrillers, then it is well worth investigating, especially in this great looking new print. Also, this re-release is perfectively timed to coincide with a potential Halloween Brexit, since watching it will definitely put you off visiting France.