Thrillers often have to walk a thin line between cleverly witholding crucial information to direct an audience, and holding back so much the audience ultimately feels betrayed and manipulated. And I'm afraid this movie is an example of the latter, engaging in such a monumental betrayal of its audience that I, the next day, am still quite angry and, listen to me, fucking DESPISE this movie to the bottom of my heart. This movie can eat shit, as far as I'm concerned. Fuck you, And Soon the Darkness!
It starts well. This movie stars Pamela Franklin [who made a big splash in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie] and is directed by Robert Fruest, who went on next to direct the delightful Abominable Dr. Phibes [and it's less-good sequel]. So we have these two British girls, Pamela as Jane and her blonde friend Cathy, on vacation, bicycling through France. While the credits play we have a somewhat inappropriate swingin-60s musical theme, that comes back recurrently, more inappropriate every time. They stop at a cafe, where we learn that it is the second day of their vacation, and it's just starting to dawn on Cathy that a vacation bicycling through France is going to include a fair amount of bicycling through France, which is fucking boring. She wants to stop at more swingin' places and meet more hot boys. Like this vaguely menacing fellow she sees at another table, and who also notices them. At this point I was TOTALLY into this movie, especially as it is cleverly suggesting that perhaps the reason slightly dowdier Jane just wants to exalt in the backroads and simple joys of companionship, as opposed to boys, is precisely THAT she's slightly dowdier and... well, maybe we'll discover that she wants to keep Cathy all to herself. Nudge, nudge.
Cathy wants to stay in the cafe, and meet the cute guy, but Jane insists they move on. The cute guy gets on his moped and passes them on the road. Then he's there waiting up ahead, again slightly menacingly, at the entrance of a graveyard, and he stares at them as they go by [you can clearly see the cameraman reflected in his sunglasses]. Then he gets on his moped and passes them again. By now Cathy is virtually boy-crazy and she wants to pull over in a patch of woods, lay down and sunbathe. Jane insists they go on, but Cathy says this is a vacation, and goddamn it, she's gonna sunbathe. Riding down French roads is boring. They fall asleep. When they wake, Jane insists that they get going to reach the next town before dark, but Cathy is just as insistent that they stay longer. It escalates until Jane finally bikes off by herself.
We stay with Cathy for a little bit and see her decide to hang her bra and panties out to dry, then hear a noise in the woods and go investigate. When she returns, her bike has been recently messed with, and after she turns her back for a second, all her spokes have been broken! The movie has also established the presence of a creepy man working out in the middle of a nearby field. And one has had cause to note how carefully the film is wringing clever menace out of the wide-open skies and deceptively open and airy landscape. At this point I was still completely behnd this film, and really into its cleverness. But soon--Betrayal! Lies! And Deception!
Jane drives in a huff down the road for a bit, then stops at a cafe. She speaks like two words of French, so she doesn't understand why the woman who runs the place is staring at her in annoyance, babbing menacingly, and finally getting out "bad road." That was a good, creepy moment. Jane returns to where she left Cathy, and soon meets up with the dude on the moped, Paul. He takes her back into town, where he asks people if they have seen her. Jane understands the word "murder" out of one of the responses, then Paul gets on his moped and takes off! Jane finds that there was another young blonde who was murdered in that very stretch of woods, a few years earlier. She gets a ride from an Englishwoman who tells her the details, and says the girl was "asking for it."
SPOILERS > > >
She ends up meeting Paul again who tells her he is a detective from another town, who is off the books, just fascinated with the previous murder. They return to the crime scene, where Paul leads Jane way back into the woods to "show her something," without telling her what it is. I've fallen for that line myself. Jane realizes that he never showed her any identification. Then she realizes that in the second he had her camera, he snatched her film. When she asks for it back, he purposely drops it and exposes it. Then Jane finds Cathy's panties, way back in the woods, and Paul is suspect number one. She makes a run for it, knocking over his moped to gain an advantage. Knocks it over? Bitch, take it OUT! I don't know what these people think. Especially as she ends up RUNNING down the road in inappropriate shoes, while all he has to do is hop back on his moped. But the stupidity of horror movie characters has been well documented.
Well, miracle of miracles, Jane simply knocking over Paul's bike is enough to give it MAJOR engine trouble, such that it takes him approximately 30 minutes to get it going again. In that time Jane has run several yards if not miles in her hard flats [I KNOW that girl has blisters big as saucers] until she comes to the house of the local gendarme. Don't you agree that "Gendarme" is a much more evocative word than "Police?" Dammit, the French score again. Anyway, he tells Jane to stay put at his place while he goes to the crime scene.
She hangs out at his place, meeting his creepy father and checking out the chickens and other fauna in back. And by now it has become apparent to us that Jane is a bit of a dim bulb. But that's fine, that's what her character is. Worse yet, however, is that by now the movie has just done a trifle too much dither and dather, run here, run there, feint left, feint right, that I am getting bored and beginning to disengage. Fast-forwarding was employed.
So the gendarme returns, then takes off to look in the other direction. Then who should turn up, but number-one suspect, Paul! He bangs on the door, telling her he must speak with her! Of course, he couldn't possibly tell her what's on his mind through the door. Then he circles the place, banging on the door, and finally breaks in! Then Jane, plucky little Einstein that she is, decides to leave the house, where there is a wide variety of defensive weapons of every size and description to choose from, and run way out back to the field of abandoned cars, which offer nothing in terms of defense. Smart cookie! Maybe her mother didn't make her listen to Mozart while in the womb.
So way out back are all these abandoned and rotting vehicles. She hides in a trailer kind of thing, as Paul runs around maniacally, pounding on each one and screaming her name. She hides in the closet of a trailer and, why look, it's Cathy's corpse! How DO horror movie heroines somehow know to hide RIGHT where the corpse of their best friend has been stashed away? Seriously, they should be hired by the police to find missing bodies. Who needs bloodhounds? But we'll try to forgive, since this was made in 1970, before this was a total cliche. Then Jane hides behind a tree, and bashes Paul repeatedly in the skull with a rock and runs back to the house.
However, by now I am in that state of simmering anger, just waiting to boil over in fury, because I think I can see quite clearly where this is going, and it had JUST BETTER NOT go there. But it does. Jane runs into the gendarme, just back home. As he holds her sobbing figure, his hands start a-roamin' like the bison of the Great Plains, until she realizes: HE'S the killer! And Paul really WAS trying to help her!
And at that point I'm like: FUCK YOU, And Soon the Darkness.
Okay, so Paul has spent the past 45 minutes being all cagey, drawing Jane back into the dark and remote woods without telling her why, exposing her film evidence in a quite guilty manner, chasing her hither and yon, banging on the door of the gendarme's house, finally violently breaking in, then stalking Jane all over the field of abandoned vehicles, all because he wanted to tell her that he's here to help? Speak up, son! Cat got your tongue? No, obviously the movie just wanted to manipulate us, and couldn't figure out how to do this cleverly, so it actually works, and instead reveals only how it has been [attempting to] manipulate us--and has drawn it out for a unforgivable 45 minutes, all for NOTHING. Look folks, I got shit to do. I was already getting bored with the movie, then to draw this crap out for that long leading up to this IDIOTIC manipulation--I began to HATE this movie.
Anyway, I'm sure you can guess the end. Jane is all like "Oh my God, like, HE'S been the killer all along!" when suddenly Paul, no worse the wear despite his cranial trauma, shows up and saves her in the nick of time. At this point I wanted Jane to go psycho, grab a crowbar and bash Paul's skull in for being so coy with the information. I'd love to see him learn a valuable lesson that it doesn't pay to be cagey when lives are at stake. Asshole.
< < < SPOILERS END
So it's a good thing there aren't time machines, because if there were, I would commandeer one to go back and kick the writer and director in the balls. Director Fruest might escape with the ability to walk, but only because of the brilliance of Dr. Phibes. Okay, sure, maybe this whole thing wasn't such a cliche back then, but it was still drawn out and so OBVIOUSLY manipulative it still deserves scorn. Making matters much worse is the fact that the first half of this film is so good, with its believeable character setup, smart use of language difficulties and excellent use of the flat landscape and wide-open skies to create menace--and all for THAT.
There is a remake of this out on DVD soon--which was how I learned of the existence of this film--but I'm not sure I want to see it anymore. It's too bad, it had a lot going for it. Ah well, another wasted 90 minutes.
It could be worse, but for the most part you're quite safe skipping it.