One of the great things about the DVD revolution is the opportunity it occasionally gives us to discover films from the past that we'd probably never have been aware of otherwise. Every now and then, you can stumble across a real gem -- and that was the case when I saw this wonderful little low-budget British thriller from the early seventies which was produced by the team responsible for writing and directing "The Avengers" TV series. Anchor Bay have dusted it off and given it their usual quality presentation, and I suspect "And Soon The Darkness" will now quietly start to gather quite a strong cult following among Euro-Horror fans, especially since it's co-writer and producer, Brian Clemens, wrote (and in one case directed) two of Hammer studios' more interesting projects from the seventies ("Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde" and "Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter") while director, Robert Fuest, directed the Dr Phibes films. Also, the film inadvertently has a slight giallo feel to it thanks to it's 'foreigner abroad' theme and twist ending.
Two young nurses from Britain take a cycling holiday in rural France and begin to suspect that they are being followed by a mysterious motorcyclist in dark glasses. One of the girls, Cathy (Michele Dotrice), assumes the man is just flirting with them while the other, Jane (Pamela Franklin), isn't so sure. Cathy becomes fed-up with cycling through the desolate countryside with the sun beating down on them relentlessly, and stops in a clearing near a small wooded area to sunbathe. She has an argument with Jane who wants to keep to their tour schedule, and the two split up - with Jane cycling on to the next village. But that ends up being the last Jane sees of her friend! Isolated, and unable to communicate with the locals, who eye her pensively, she gradually becomes convinced that something terrible has happened to Cathy. Her fears are not allayed when she discovers that another British tourist with blonde hair (as has Cathy) was murdered on the same stretch of road several years previously and the killer was never caught! But who can Jane trust to help her get to the bottom of the mystery?
This is a very atmospheric chiller that takes advantage of some common fears for its effect. On the commentary track Brian Clemens mentions that he was inspired by a holiday he took where he noticed that you could travel down many of the roads around the French countryside without seeing another soul for miles. Although everything in the film takes place in broad daylight under beautiful azure blue sky, there is an almost agoraphobic feeling induced by the desolate landscape, with the roads stretching on unbendingly into the distance; then there is the isolation and helplessness that comes of being alone in a different culture and not being able to speak the language. This is conveyed very well in the film by having all of the French dialogue spoken without subtitles so that, much of the time, we are in the same situation as Jane the protagonist who never knows exactly what is going on or who she can trust. Against this backdrop the screenplay delivers all the usual red-herrings we expect from a thriller but, although it is a mystery, it's more the Hitchcockian suspense side of things that gives the film it's staying power, since with such a small cast, it's not too difficult to guess the identity of the killer.
With no real on-screen violence evident for much of the film's running time, Fuest finds some subtle ways to keep the viewer on edge: one of the most effective sequences comes when Cathy is left alone sunbathing and we see a faint shadow fall over her face; the radio by her side (that has been playing jaunty pop tunes) gradually loses it's reception, and the sound gets distorted with atonal whistles that start to hint, almost subconsciously, to the viewer that something is wrong. For a thriller with a small cast and little "action" to be a success, a lot depends on the strength of it's characterisation and the ability of it's actors. This film is blessed with two great female leads in Cathy (although she disappears from the film one third of the way through) played by Michele Dotrice -- who British readers (if they're over thirty!) will be familiar with from her role as Betty Spencer in the Seventies BBC sitcom "Some Mothers Do Have 'em" -- and Jane, a very sympathetic heroine played wonderfully by Pamela Franklin. Clemens and Fuest were apparently not very impressed with Sandor Eles who they reckon was miscast in the role of the threatening stranger who follows the girls. On the commentary track they even make fun of him because: "he couldn't speak his lines without moving his head at the same time" but the film certainly doesn't seem to suffer much from this drawback! There is also a very strong cast of supporting characters, who add plenty of colour to the foreboding french countryside we see in the film, such as John Nettleton as a taciturn Gendarme.
Although Anchor Bay's DVD release is not exactly loaded with extras, what we do have is quality stuff! First up, director Robert Fuest and co-writer and co-producer Brian Clemens, provide an excellent commentary track to the film that is moderated by Christopher Lee's biographer, Jonathan Sothcott. This is a very entertaining and informative commentary that gives us plenty of anecdotes about the shooting of the film on location in France, as well as more technical information to do with camera set-ups and lighting. There is also a lot of talk about their time working on "The Avengers". Clemens has had quite a long and varied career; anyone who has grown up in the UK during the seventies and eighties will be familiar with many of the TV series' he devised, such as "The Professionals" for instance. I was also very interested to note that the original story from which "And Soon The Darkness" was borne, was co-written by Terry Nation, who at that time, had also just finished working as a writer for "The Avengers". Nation, of course has gone down in sci-fi history as the creator of the daleks; but he also devised and wrote many episodes of my all time favourite sci-fi series, "Blake's 7". Next we have some very thorough biographies and filmography's for Fuest and Clemens, while lastly, several radio spots and a rather overwrought, but still quite effective, theatrical trailer top things off.
Although the title sequence is very grainy, after a few minutes things settle down and we have a typically robust transfer from Anchor Bay: a sharp image with very rich colours and practically no print damage evident. The sound is a standard but adequate mono track. "And Soon The Darkness" has quickly earned a place on my list of all time favourite movies; kudos to Anchor Bay for unearthing it! Fabulous stuff!