Robert Fuest’s first film, AND SOON THE DARKNESS, starts with two Brits, Pamela Franklin and Michelle Dotrice (pronounced “dough-treece”) on the world’s most boring holiday, cycling across a totally flat stretch of French countryside. They stop at a roadside bar ~
“Did you get your bum pinched?”
“No, that’s Italy. They’ll do anything in Italy.”
“What’re we doing in France then?”
This slightly smutty, un-PC girltalk gets things off to a good start, striking one as credible and well-observed, and the actresses handle it well. Franklin had played little Flora in Jack Clayton’s THE INNOCENTS, and Dotrice went on to co-star in the hugely successful 70s sitcom SOME MOTHERS DO ‘AVE ‘EM, and both are terrific, naturalistic players, who always feel overheard rather than performative.
Fuest, fresh from designing and directing episodes of TV’s The Avengers, has a passable thriller plot by Brian Clemens and Terry Nation (both from that show — Nation also created the Daleks): Dotrice vanishes and Franklin finds the entire countryside is populated only with red herrings — and one sex-killer.
The central premise sometimes feels like an expansion of the build-up to Hitchcock’s cropduster attack in NORTH BY NORTHWEST — unseen terror in a landscape of limitless,blank horizons. Though in fact the bright flatness does yield to tangled woods, presenting a contrast between total visibility with nothing to see, and dense impenetrability where something may be lurking millimetres away.
Fuest, one of the great director-designers, has handicapped himself with a film where there seems to be nothing to design, but he exercises his eye with strong compositions and a sensitivity to objects, both the shiny kind brought by the tourists, and the rusty local equipment.
He’s also attentive enough, without being lecherous, to his leading ladies. They spend the whole film in tight, huge shorts — this is a film very much focussed on the plump white thighs of young English womanhood, and white panties hung to dry on a tree are a major plot point, but Fuest’s interest is frank rather than salacious. He doesn’t have the slightly seedy intensity of someone like Nicholas Roeg, who is rather too concerned with the passage of Jenny Agutter’s knickers up and down her thighs (Roeg was — maybe IS — a swinger, I’ve been told — parties, car keys, the whole bit — which makes total sense when you put it together with his films). Indeed, Fuest’s DR PHIBES films may be proto-slasher movies, but they’d more concerned with killing esteemed British character actors than busty dolly birds, which makes them rather refreshing in their sadism.
The plot slips into variations on THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE — of course she’s going to cold-cock a suspected killer and run smack into the waiting arms of the real killer, but it has the benefit of that compelling news story subject: something nasty happening to normal young holidaymakers, and despite the title there’s no darkness in sight — Fuest’s credit even appears over sunlight glinting through leaves, and the whole action takes place on a single day under blue skies… though a storm is predicted…
Suggested Fever Dream Double Feature: THE VANISHING (original Dutch version), or make it a Dotrice double with the mind-blowing ~