Saturday, June 30, 2012

Dark Places (1973)

Old Mister Marr (Carleton Hobbs) dies in an English asylum for the mentally ill, telling his friend Edward Foster (Robert Hardy being very very fragile) something about money hidden behind a wall, probably a wall in Marr's old mansion from where Marr's wife, his children, and their nanny one day just disappeared, which may or may not have been the beginning of the man's madness.

It just so happens that Marr leaves said mansion to Foster, and boy, are there many walls inside behind which money might be hidden. But Foster isn't the only one who knows about the money. The local physician, Ian Mandeville (Christopher Lee, there to cash in a paycheck, not to act) and his sister Sarah (Joan Collins, playing the role Joan Collins always plays in these movies, but hey, she is at least acting that much) have heard about the hidden treasure, too, and both seem hell-bent on acquiring it by any means (looking like Christopher Lee, flirting like Joan Collins) necessary. Marr's lawyer Prescott (Herbert Lom) is also clearly in the know about the money. Now, you may ask yourself why these people haven't looked for the money long before Foster arrived, seeing as how the mansion has been empty and slowly rotting away for decades; and there you are, already thinking things through more thoroughly than the writers of the film.

Prescott's and the Mandevilles' vague plans to get at the money aren't Edward's only problems, though, for the mansion has a peculiar influence on him. There's a picture of the young Marr hanging over a fireplace, and he just happens to look exactly like Edward does. Soon, the face of a young woman in a window, noises, lights and the laughing of children haunt Edward. Eventually, he will have waking dreams in which he sees himself as Marr, living with a mad wife and two sociopathic children, and not quite thinking an affair with the nanny (Jane Birkin) through. Why, it's all enough to drive a man to lose his identity.

Dark Places is one of the many films of Don Sharp, a seasoned workman director with some moments of brilliance in his filmography. In its first half hour or so, Dark Places promises to be one of Sharp's outstanding movies, with a properly gothic atmosphere so thick you won't forget Sharp had been working for Hammer for a bit. At the beginning, the film seems to strive to mix a classic British ghost story about a haunted house that drives a man into doubting his own identity and losing contact with reality with the type of rather spooky thriller the British film industry loved so dearly. That's a genre combination akin to mixing rice and refried black beans (read: perfect), so I found myself enjoying these early stages very much.

Alas, the film's script lacks the proper tightness ghost stories - at least of this type - and thrillers sorely need. Instead of slowly but surely building its plot out of hints and a tightening feeling of menace, the writers opt for over-exposition in form of Edward's hallucinations. Used more subtly, these could have been an excellent way to demonstrate our protagonist's deteriorating state of mind and give us glimpses at what really happened in the mansion in the past, but the script goes for a sledgehammer obviousness that killed most of my engagement with the story; even in 1973, we had seen all this before again and again, and realized with much more elegance. As it stands, the film shows its cards way too early and then doesn't seem to know what to do afterwards, except for shuffling its feet and showing Christopher Lee looking bored.

Sharp does his best with the rather indifferent script, but he's not the kind of stylistically dominant director who can turn Dark Places into anything more than a solid, watchable movie. Of course, there are worse things than that.


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