A psychological thriller centered on a young boy and his disturbed psycho-sexual fantasies, AFRAID OF THE DARK is a strange little film that’s admirably thoughtful and subdued in its approach, but not recommended for the easily disturbed!
This modest 1991 British-French co-production was the directorial debut of Academy Award winning screenwriter Mark Peploe, whose writing credits include the Bernardo Bertolucci films THE LAST EMPEROR, THE SHELTERING SKY and LITTLE BUDDHA. A freaky (if intellectually charged) horror flick like this seems an odd choice for a first film by such an obviously refined sensibility, but here it is, complete with a high profile (by European standards) cast, which includes James Fox (of PERFORMANCE, THE RUSSIA HOUSE and many others), David Thewlis (NAKED) and French starlet Fanny Ardent (SWANN IN LOVE, ELIZABETH, many others).
Lucas, a plucky little boy, lives in a small English village with his police inspector father and blind French-accented mother. Everyone around them, it seems, is blind, and a madman is on the loose, hacking up visually impaired women. Lucas is understandably worried for his mother’s safety, and becomes fixated on tracking down and stopping the psycho. There are several suspicious men who may be the killer, including an apathetic window washer and an even meaner handyman. The culprit, however, reveals himself as a photographer who Lucas manages to catch in the act one night when he—what luck!—casually glances into an open window and sees the freak threatening a topless blind woman with a straight razor. Lucas springs into action and puts a knitting needle through one of the guy’s eyes.
At this point, halfway through the film, the narrative does an abrupt about face, revealing that the preceding has all been a morbid fantasy. In reality Lucas still lives with his police inspector father and French mother, who, unlike Lucas’s fantasy incarnation, is not blind. In fact Lucas is the one losing his sight, and is due to undergo an operation on his eyes. He’s not exactly looking forward to this, and nor is he overjoyed about the child his pregnant mother is about to bear. Of course, Lucas is not the plucky lad he was before, but a severely introverted sourpuss.
Worse, Lucas finds himself increasingly unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy. In his mind everyone around him is blind (as in the fantasy of the first half) and a maniac is still on the loose…
Like many screenwriters turned directors, Mark Peploe doesn’t seem entirely comfortable in the role. The visuals are competent but uninspired, with flat lighting and nailed-down camerawork. If you ask me the material, particularly during the fantasy-tinged first half, would seem to call for a more flamboyant style a la Nicolas Roeg or Dario Argento. The performances are likewise uninspiring. Sure, the cast is packed with a wealth of acting talent, and all do solid work, but nobody really stands out. I will, however, say this about the film: I’ve been thinking about it a lot, so it’s at least partially successful.
Consider: the narrative stops in the middle and appears to reverse itself, replaying the central character’s exploits in the “real” world, in which quite a few characters and psychological motifs from the first half are made apparent. Also, there’s the question of chronology: the fantasy business comes first, but the way Peploe plays out the second half—with characters and elements from the first popping up throughout—suggests the main character is actually experiencing the two realities concurrently, particularly in the final scenes, in which reality and fantasy become literally indistinguishable.
The film is never particularly graphic outside the extremely troubling sight of a blind woman tortured with a straight razor that occurs halfway through (a reversal of the usual genre movie practice of saving the nasty business for the end), but Peploe still manages to disturb in his unflinching presentation of a young boy’s sexually-tinged fantasies. I remember reading a review that suggested the lead actor, young Ben Keyworth (who hasn’t been heard from much since), will have years of psychotherapy ahead of him as a result of appearing in this film, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that has indeed turned out to be the case.
AFRAID OF THE DARK
Les Films Ariane/Telescope Films
Director: Mark Peploe
Producer: Simon Bosanquet
Screenplay: Mark Peploe, Frederick Seidel
Cinematography: Bruno de Keyzer
Editing: Scott Thomas
Cast: James Fox, Fanny Ardent, Paul McGann, Clare Holman, Robert Stephens, Susan Wooldridge, Jeremy Thewlis, Ben Keyworth, Catriona MacColl, Hilary Mason, Sheila Burrell, Star Acri, Niven Boyd, Tiffany Bryant, Frances Cuka, Gerard Dimiglio, Laurence Harrington, Struan Rodger, Oona Howard