A gentle ripple of acoustic, Latin- inflected guitar gives way to a blast of horns heralding possibly the most incongruous theme to a horror film ever: switch the TV on two bars into Laurie Johnson’s brassy caper tune (actually the result of an idea from Bernard Herrmann), set to the relaxing sight of bicycles traversing French roads as trees sway gently in the breeze, and you might be forgiven for thinking you’re actually watching a light comedy, rather than one of the scariest, most suspenseful films of all time.
Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best, and there couldn’t be a more straightforward premise than two English girls in their early twenties going on a cycling holiday to France, during which time they have a row, get separated, leaving one (by now completely lost) to find the other, whilst stranded in a country she doesn’t speak the language of and avoiding the advances of a (possibly) sinister stranger on a scooter. Oh, and there just happens to be a vicious sex killer on the loose in the area, who could be literally anyone she speaks to, either male or female. Let’s face it, plots don’t come much better than this, do they? Oh, and one of the girls is called Cathy, which is an ideal woman-in-peril name if ever I heard one. Perfect.
And AND SOON THE DARKNESS- yet another gem from the pen of Brian Clemens, the man behind THRILLER, THE AVENGERS, CAPTAIN KRONOS VAMPIRE HUNTER, DR JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE and many others, with additional input from DR WHO supreme Terry Nation- is pretty much perfect. As both a fan and a writer you see so many films, some passable, some dire, some enjoyably trashy- but very rarely do you see one you can return to again and again and always find new treasures. This, however, is all of those things- a masterclass in British horror and suspense, and essential viewing for anyone who wants to see how it used to be and should still be done. Apparently they’re remaking, or have already remade, it in Argentina as we speak, with Amber “All The Boys Love Mandy Lane” Heard. Fooey, dear boy, is what I say to that. The very fact that this film was shot in 1969, just as mods were turning into free loving, backpacking hippies and beginning to traverse the length and breadth of Europe in search of kicks, thrills and mystical experiences, is key to its very existence.
This is not to suggest it was necessarily aimed at any particular subculture or even age group (trust me, Clemens says it wasn’t) but for a film made without any predetermined agenda, you have to admit it speaks pretty loud volumes about its era. Its shimmering, sun-drenched yet sombre, foreboding and ultimately terrifying beauty derives from its age of origin- a time when the countryside was unspoilt, and you could drive for miles and miles without seeing another vehicle. These days, you’d be lucky, even in rural France, to get two minutes of silence before another twatmobile blazed along with chipmunk music blaring out of its boombox. And of course, there’s always the old bugbear of “if it were made now, wouldn’t the characters just phone, email or text each other?” They can’t rely on the premise of “oh the reception’s down” or “I’ve run out of battery” in EVERY remake. Not that they should, technically, be remaking them at all, but that’s another rant for another publication.
It’s hard to maintain critical impartiality with a film as good as this, and even harder to resist the temptation to lapse into a stream of superlatives. I could go on forever about the fantastic camerawork (take a bow Ian Wilson) which roves and slowly glides across the French landscape, conveying at once a sense of tranquil beauty AND an undercurrent of brooding menace. And without knowing it, between them, he, Fuest and Clemens were pioneering a whole new style: “Sun-kissed horror”, a phenomenon that would be developed further in the 70s across Europe in films such as A Candle For The Devil (1971) Night Hair Child (1972) Don’t Torture A Duckling (1973) Would You Kill A Child? (1976) and reached its ultimate apotheosis with the sexploitative schlockfest Island Of Death (also 1976) more or less began here.
Prior to that, European horror was the preserve of the dingy, urban backstreets of Greater London, the gothic alleyways of Rome, or misty Transylvanian villages bedecked with castles and surrounded by acres of woodland: after And Soon The Darkness, directors and producers alike began to realise how sunlight- broad, blinding sunlight, but slowly dissolving into the fading embers of evening- could be just as terrifying, all-enveloping and claustrophobia-inducing. Ironic, really, for a film bearing the title And Soon The Darkness, that practically no darkness is actually seen throughout, but such things are part of the strange fascination of British horror: in Die Screaming, Marianne for instance, Marianne neither dies nor screams, and in Whoever Slew Auntie Roo, the identity of the slayers is in no way a mystery to the audience. What it doesn’t deliver in honour of its title, though, it makes up for by exceeding every other possible expectation.
For a start, it’s not only a whodunit, but a have-they-dunnit: we know a murder has been committed in the area before, which shady, uber-Mod scooterist and alleged detective Paul Salman (Sandor Eles) claims to be investigating, but we don’t necessarily know that one’s actually happened this time. All we’ve seen is Jane (Pamela Franklin) and Cathy (Michele Dotrice), two student nurses from (for some reason never expanded upon) Nottingham, have a blazing row whilst cycling across France’s rural backwater, split up and lose contact with each other. We know that one is anxiously searching for the other, and we know that the ‘missing’ one (Dotrice) has been the victim of bike sabotage and Arnold Layne-style underwear theft shortly before being frightened by something off camera, but that’s about all we know.
Everything else could easily be in Franklin’s mind- the supposed hostility of the locals (which is how everyone sounds when you’re surrounded by people you can’t understand- trust me, I should know, I lived in Glasgow once), the supposedly sinister subtext of is-she-isn’t-she-a-raving-dyke schoolmistress Claire Kelly’s offer of accommodation, the menace conveyed by miles and miles of old shacks, tin huts and flint cottages, the ‘dodginess’ of Eles and his attempts to help. It’s been hinted at already that she’s the more neurotic of the two and is prone to irrational moodswings. Yet it is these idiosyncrasies which also instil a defensive streak in her, making her less of a victim than the almost gullible, vulnerable and far too easy-going Dotrice.
Half of the film’s beauty stems from is very ability on the part of both writer and director to allow the viewer to come to these conclusions themselves: nothing is explicit, and everything is ambiguous. Thus, unlike some, equally great films which more or less make the killer’s identity known from the start by leaving EXTREMELY obvious clues (Deadly Strangers, Assault, I Start Counting, Scream And Die! and Schizo all spring to mind) lying around, Clemens, Fuest and Nation really do provide us with a brainteaser, in which ANY one of the principal protagonists could be the culprit if one gives time to stop and consider it. These subtleties are further underscored by the dialogue, which is still central to the plot but sparser than one would find in many films of the period, allowing the scenery- or rather the characters’ perception of it- to tell the tale. And additionally, some of the most frenetic bursts of spoken interplay are in French, deliberately un-subtitled so that (unless one happens to be fluent in that tongue) we feel as confused as Franklin.
It might be stretching things a bit to suggest that this is the “thinking man’s horror thriller”- after all, it came direct from the team responsible for commercial televisions’ biggest and most successful action series, and even though shot modestly, still features deliberate close-ups on women’s legs, bottoms and thighs (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) before putting them into what could be perceived as, but is not necessarily, exploitative peril. In those terms it is as much a product of its time as the work of Pete Walker, Lindsay Shonteff or Robert Hartford Davies. Yet in every other respect- execution, pacing, content, context, direction, script and artwork- it is streets ahead not only of all those but of practically every Brit horror film of both its peer group and the subsequent decade. And though not many such films would be shot in France, it could still be argued that its perfect juxtaposition of the gritty and the bucolic, combined with Clemens’ uncanny ability to create beauty out of essentially bare-bones, low budget ideas, set the tone for at least 60 percent of what was soon to follow.
Unlike many of its contemporaries, it did rather well at the box office, yet like other less successful films, including half the titles I’ve reviewed for this site, it found its biggest audience on television, mainly among people evidently younger than its original X-rated audience, most of whom are now in their late 30s to mid 40s and wax lyrical about it regularly. It’s also revealing to discover, even though the film itself has no direct link with to ‘counterculture’ other than Eles’ mod togs (apparently from his own wardrobe), the girls’ hippie backpacker appearance and some groovy roadside café extras, how many lovers of vintage rock music cite And Soon The Darkness as one of their favourites. There also exist (I only recently discovered) several vocal versions of the theme tune, at least one in a Northern Soul stylee, which is ironic as I myself tried to write some lyrics to it recently, as, apparently, so did Clemens himself back in 1969!!
I shall reserve judgement on the remake til I’ve seen it, but I find it hard to believe that anything could match this for sheer panache. Watch it, even 40 years on (it’s easy enough to find on DVD) and feel your jaw dropping, not least of all as it dawns on you where Tobe Hooper and every subsequent ‘backwoods slasher’ director that ever sat through frequent all-nighters of ‘dem Briddish movies’ in some hazy Californian- or yes, even Texan- fleapit copped their moves from. Anyone who doesn’t believe me- on yer bike.