Countdown to Halloween: Ian Taylor on Dark Places (1974)
ABOUT OUR GUEST
Last week, I stated that Andrew Llewellen is the one friend/colleague from the "We Belong Dead"/"Unsung Horrors" group that I'd most like to meet in person. I was wrong. Ian Taylor is that person.
I'm just kidding, of course. My original statement generated some good-natured comments on Facebook that demonstrate why the "WBD" gang is truly a smart, fun, good sense of humor alliance of writers. I use the word "alliance" because when I issued a last-minute invitation to fill some end of the month slots in the Countdown, Ian immediately volunteered. He didn't just go through the motions and string together a few words, though. Just look at what he's written about Dark Places! It's an engaging, entertaining, nearly 3,000 word essay full of facts, opinion and humor. I can't wait for you to read it.
Thank you, Ian. You're earning that #1 spot!
Come and hold my hand, I’m going to take you to Dark Places. No, not the modern thing based on that novel by that ‘in’ person Gillian Flynn, we’re going further back than that. Decades, in fact, back to the early 1970s when the UK’s film-making industry wasn’t quite on its ass and it was possible for distinguished actors to make low-budget horror films with a (generally) straight face, and the skills of both they and those behind the camera artists (for that is what they were) produced films that often looked much richer than their budgets ought to have allowed. We are looking at the independent film Dark Places, made in 1972 though not released until the following year. It had been resting in my ‘to watch’ list for some time but Jeff’s invitation to contribute to this year’s countdown to Halloween seemed the ideal time to watch and share my thoughts. So, off we go. Hold my hand tightly though. It might all seem terribly familiar but there are always twists and turns and you never really know what might suddenly appear from out of those Dark Places…
When placed against many British genre films of the time, this particular piece seems to provoke puzzlingly little in the way of fond memory. Quite contrary to the likes of, say, The Creeping Flesh, Horror Express, Asylum or Dracula AD 1972, it seems to encourage either complete ignorance of its existence or, even worse, mild criticism that suggests that any stronger feelings would be wasted on such as Dark Places. And, as I finally sit down to watch I can’t help but wonder why. With a cast of favourites from Brit Horror of the era, including Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom and Joan Collins (Oh, and hammy old Robert Hardy too, if that’s your thing!) it surely must have something going for it? And as the opening credits pan across a large country house resting in the shadows of the night-time, and that favourite old technique of pathetic fallacy adds the sound of cold wind and rustling trees beneath an insistently nudging score, I begin to realise that maybe the familiarity of all this iconography is working against it. Move on now, Sir, nothing of interest to see here…?
As a car rolls up to what turns out to be a Private Asylum, the window rolls down to reveal a typically terse Lee, just the right side of bombastic, and he’s on his way to see a typically overcooked Hardy who appears to be in charge of the institution and is accepting the bequeathing of a stately home from Old Marr who is breathing his last … and as well as the asylum and an old dark family pile, there’s a hidden inheritance and scheming acquaintances, all hoping to get their grubby little mitts on both property and money. It’s all very old-fashioned in presentation, right down to regular horror bit part player Roy Evans (The House That Dripped Blood, Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde, Vault of Horror) as the taxi driver who gives a double take when Hardy’s character, Edward Foster, tells him that he’s the new owner of Marr’s Grove. “It’s bad,” he mumbles. “Things happen there…”
And yet, surely we love all of this stuff. The lovely shots of a 1970s railway station, a quiet English country village populated sparsely with cars from another age. We love the nostalgia as much as the horror tropes, don’t we? And our American cousins generally seem to love getting glimpses of a green and pleasant land that, to be honest, most of us Brits don’t necessarily see on a daily basis - if ever! I think the issue here might be that this film is more old-fashioned even for its time. It is basically an old dark house story. The sort of thing that was prevalent in Edgar Wallace’s, Mary Roberts Rinehart’s and Ethel Lina White’s canon of the 1920s. You know, those stories that wound up as successful plays a few years later, becoming staples of repertory theatre before being made into silent films and remade in creaky sound a few years later, maybe into the 1940s at the very latest. They were old by the time Vincent Price made The Bat in 1959, positively pointless by the time of Hammer/William Castle ‘comedy’ horror The Old Dark House and certainly well out of fashion by 1972/73. Don’t make the mistake of lumping the likes of the excellent The Legend of Hell House (1973) in with it, either. That was all about the investigation of a haunted house. In other words, it is completely different to the traditional Old Dark House affair, which is all about hidden wealth, grasping affiliates and secret passages. Of course there were exceptions: remakes of old dark house standards such as The Cat and the Canary, The Spiral Staircase and Seven Keys to Baldpate and the flawed but interesting Frankie Howerd vehicle The House in Nightmare Park but every one of them splits opinion and none can necessarily be described as runaway successes. Make no mistake about it, when it arrived on cinema screens, Dark Places was a film out of time. And yet…and yet, the more I watched, the more I began to realise that I really was enjoying myself immensely and I wondered why…
Well, surely some of the praise for that deserves to land fairly and squarely at the director’s door. Don Sharp already had quite some pedigree by the early 70s. He was responsible for the likes of monochrome winners such as Witchcraft and Curse of the Fly, and had previously worked with Christopher Lee on a lively selection of historicals: Hammer’s The Devil-Ship Pirates and Rasputin: the Mad Monk and the first two Fu Manchu films. It is his first foray into horror that really deserves attention, however, the wonderful The Kiss of the Vampire made in 1962 for Hammer Films. This was a nicely atmospheric piece that successfully coped with a lack of Cushing or Lee and created a whole separate mythology for the titular monsters. Most interestingly, despite the expected Hammer-isms, that lovely atmosphere and the up to date, colour and classiness that the company had brought to the genre, Kiss is actually quite an old-fashioned tale. It is here that we see the potential in Sharp being let loose on other almost hackneyed themes. Ten years later he would get the chance with Dark Places.
Sharp manages to create a sense of doom and dread without ever getting too carried away. His one misstep is in the scene featuring a hopelessly contrived country walk as Edward Foster begins to succumb to the grip of the house and its past occupants. The use of reverb on the voices might have been enough, the slow motion camera work possibly tipped it over the edge but the fish eye lens effect positively kills the scene. Add to that an overplayed moment of possessed sleepwalking and talking from Hardy as Foster and the result is overdone and heavy handed. Other than that, the director proves his abilities by presenting many a spooky scene (and often cliché) in a subtle and unfussy way, letting the tale spin itself and steadily draw the viewer in. He also knows how to use a performer to their best. Herbert Lom comes across as an almost cuddly and avuncular notary – but can he be trusted? Here, as Prescott, the lawyer overseeing the legal affairs pertaining to the house, Lom is well at home as a red herring, never pushing the enigmatic looks too far and remaining truthful in performance, even when cowering away from a pick-axe attack near the end.
Christopher Lee, playing the deceased Marr’s Doctor could do this sort of thing in his sleep but there’s considerable gravitas in his performance as he reveals that Old Marr not only murdered his wife and lover in the house but also his children. And despite being revealed as a chiseller in search of Marr’s hidden cache of cash early on he never resorts to overly telegraphed twitches and gestures. He also responds with palpable distaste when his sister Sarah (Joan Collins) resorts to bedding Foster as a means of finding the money. Joan herself, whilst offering to be perhaps the least likely housekeeper ever, is at home in her standard ice/maiden/scheming bitch/horny slut persona. In fact, she was ploughing the very same furrow alongside Peter Cushing in Hammer’s Fear in the Night that very same year. Here though, a fairly warm façade masks her intent and Sharp coaxes from her a performance that makes it believable that Foster might unsuspectingly fall into her honey trap. Even Hardy is kept calmer for prolonged spells, although his shouty blustering inevitably wins out.
It’s not just the cast that Sharp handles well though. His shots of Foster arriving at the dilapidated entrance to Marr’s Grove is well done, complete with overgrown driveway and a keep out sign but, most effectively juxtaposed with the happy sounds of chirping birdsong. The unlocking of the allegedly haunted house allows for great scenes of dusty, disheveled emptiness as Foster wanders from room to room, prompting the audience to shout “No way would I be doing that!”
To truly appreciate how well Don does with his directing though, and to also appreciate why Dark Places works so surprisingly well for me, we should really take a run though a checklist of old dark house iconography, a busy semantic field of old fashioned horror imagery.
Some it could be considered a bit silly…Foster’s first action after being warned away by the taxi driver is to immediately put his leg through rotten floorboards. Step away everyone! Hardy in the hole! But other things, whilst overly familiar, all hit the right notes: a sinister doll with a broken face, a mysterious young woman waving from an upstairs window, a knife falling from who knows where and embedding itself into the floorboards, toppling pictures getting their glass cracked across the image contained within the frame and a moving rocking horse. These should get you thinking along the right lines and it’s so far so “Brrr!” They all work pretty well too, despite some overly booming music and Robert Hardy’s unnecessarily beefy roaring and shouting when the lights won’t come on, leaving him to search in the dark.
There are other moments that work much better in their quiet simplicity. Whilst staying with Prescott the lawyer, Foster looks out of his bedroom window towards the silhouette of his stately pile on the horizon, just visible through the dark night… and a light is on upstairs! On happening again later, Foster is informed that the window in question is the nursery of the murdered children. The notion is chilling, more so through its underplaying. Let’s face it, ghostly or evil children are always good for a shiver, ask anyone from Mario Bava and John Wyndham to the directors of The Exorcist or The Omen! And so, when continuing a cash quest through the old house, Foster finds broken dollies everywhere and the giggling echoes of youngsters past.
Then there are other recognisable images and themes: a search for secret panels as a lurker lurks nearby and doors silently swing open and dust sheets shift unaided. The typical old dark house shenanigans are gradually being overtaken - by supernatural ones, and I realise that I am enjoying the hackneyed old clichés because they are old friends. I am enjoying the comfortable discomfort of a greatest hits of nostalgic terrors. A framed portrait of Old Marr in better years reveals an unlikely similarity in appearance to Foster, the next time he sees it, the image on the picture displays a slashed throat! Over here there are mouldy footprints stepping across his bedroom, over there he finds a pick-axe and uses it to reveal a secret room behind the fireplace that remains stubbornly out of bounds (although the use of the tool to open up a hole results in one of the film’s finest scenes of underplayed terror as Sharp keeps a firm directorial grip on a sudden rush of awakened bats from within the darkness beyond!
Perhaps even more impressive is how directing Donny presents flashbacks to when Marr and family lived in the house, also cleverly conveying Foster’s descent into madness and a possible possession by the ghosts of the past. This is effected by having Foster step off camera from one scene and directly into another where he is now Andrew Marr (no, not the Scottish political journalist of BBC Television fame) and both dressed in a dinner suit and sporting a handsome moustache. Just as we recover from that surprise we realise that the dilapidated house is now returned to its former glory. The wreck of a nursery complete with broken dolls is now clean and tidy, warmly decorated and full of toys unbroken. These scenes begin to escalate, eventually bringing in troubled wife Jean Marsh (a lovely portrayal of fragile sanity and desperate attempts to both hold the family together and keep madness at bay. The following decade, she would be appearing Stateside in a real haunted house classic, The Changeling.) and the housekeeper/mistress Jane Birkin (remember the spooky scene of a woman waving from the upstairs window?) For now, though, the kids remain heard but not seen (I’m sure that traditionally we prefer it the other way around!), their unnerving whispers and giggles reverberating around the old house, but they will eventually appear as the tale reaches its climax. Even unseen, though, they are a very tangible presence, whether as ghosts or lurking just out of sight during the regression scenes, scenes that continue to cleverly link with the present. In fact, these children strike me as being almost a reverse of the brother and sister in Jack Clayton’s classic The Innocents. In that case, the children were influenced by the suggestion of ghosts whereas here they are the ghosts. Both are clearly influenced by the unpalatable behaviour of the adults around them, however.
Sharp doesn’t just smoothly segue from past to present and back either, he also manages to operate the roller coaster of emotions effectively by switching from spooky scene to relaxed daytime scene and getting the tone just right in both. Following the first regression sequence, we are treated to lovely bucolic images during the morning after as Foster takes a morning stroll with Prescott. We need these semblances of normality if we are to believe that Foster has the tenacity and presence of mind to continue operating within occasionally sinister scenes and surroundings. If it were all ‘Creep City Central’ then who would believe that he would stay???
But the flips from ‘now’ to ‘then’ become more frequent and the tale to be told becomes clearer. A beautiful canal-side scene offering such delights as a chugging narrow boat, old stone bridge and canal lock offers a charming break in tension as Foster escorts Sarah Mandeville (Joan Collins) out but – suddenly yet slickly – she is now Alta (Birkin) and romantic music plays as she urges the younger Marr to have his wife and children committed to a mental institution to allow him to make off with the housekeeper.
The children are finally seen in the next regression sequence, highlighting the escalation in the (possibly) supernatural occurrences and Foster’s unbalanced state of mind. By this point, the story, as familiar as it is, has become utterly engaging and I find myself on the edge of my seat as Foster sleep walks his way to finding a hidden key within his fireplace, one that might unlock the hidden room and, perhaps, a hidden fortune. However, after yet more mental crumbling, Foster awakens on a doctor’s couch to find both Christopher Lee and Herbert Lom towering over him – heh, heh, heh! Imagine how soothing that would make you feel! At this point there is that tragic moment so well done in British horror of the time, and of such 80s anthologies as the Hammer House of Horror television series. That moment when the protagonist decides to give up and almost gets away… before events transpire against them, or they change their mind – and then, all is lost!
I shall reveal no more as final stings in the tale occur as we always expected they would and people start to fall victim to the madness of one character or another – “I’m grown up too!” says Marr’s little boy tellingly at one stage, followed by sinisterly cherubic smiles and “We can stay together always…” Perhaps they will, at that! Past and present merge effectively and, other than a gaping plot hole that shall remain un-named, everything is tied up effectively by the closing credits.
And there you have it, the old dark house tale given a 70s makeover, directed by the man who was Sharp by name and sharp in execution and starring a veritable who’s who of familiar names. And as an added bonus, look out for the cameo appearance of John Levene as a doctor. Levene also appeared briefly in Sharp’s wacky comic horror Psychomania (1972) but was best known for his regular role as Segeant Benton of the UNIT military force in television’s Doctor Who between 1968 and 1975. As an extra link to Dark Places, Levene appeared opposite the Third Doctor played by Jon Pertwee, who was once married to…Jean Marsh. Degrees of separation and all that!
Dark Places isn’t at the top of the pile when it comes to 70s horror but it deserves better than its current status as forgotten or disregarded. Much like another out of time old dark house film yet to come – House of the Long Shadows – it allows a selection of genre actors to have fun with a familiar scenario. And if the viewer simply relaxes and immerses themselves, as if in a warm bath of nostalgia, then a good time ought to be guaranteed.
ABOUT THE COUNTDOWN
We all have them... stacks of movies we've purchased, but never watched; or, movies on the DVR, filling them to capacity. This year for the annual Countdown to Halloween, I'm going to make a dent in my "stack," watching one movie a day for the month of October that I've never seen, then writing about it.
Well, I'm going to cheat a little. Assisting me this year are a number of "guest bloggers" that I've invited to participate by commandeering classichorrors.club for a day. These are all people whose blogs I read, whose podcasts I enjoy, and/or whose existence I simply appreciate. It's an experiment, but I hope you'll enjoy reading some new perspectives.