David L Rattigan dissects a sequence from And Soon the Darkness, the 1970 thriller directed by Robert Fuest, who died on March 21, 2012
Two holidaying English nurses are cycling through the French countryside, via long stretches of road, with vast fields on each side and a blue sky overhead. Having had breakfast in a small but populated town – “It’s not exactly swinging,” quips Cathy, “but it is dangling” – they are back on the road.
Cathy has become quite taken with a handsome stranger from the town. She ogles him with impunity over breakfast. He overtakes them on a scooter, stands watching them at the side of a graveyard as they cycle past, then goes inside to look at the grave of a woman their age – “Jan Hele, 1948-1967.”
The girls’ differences come to light as they rest in a roadside clearing at the entrance to some woods. Jane (Pamela Franklin), a modest sort, wants to move quickly on to the next town as planned, but Cathy (Michele Dotrice), an altogether more sensual type, would rather sunbathe. “I’m not a bloody nun, you know,” she protests, as her true feelings about Jane’s travel plans come out. “And you’re no company.”
After an increasingly juvenile argument, Jane declares, “Get your great fat legs out of the way!” as she manoeuvres her bicycle around Cathy’s reclining frame. Each as stubborn as the other, they part company.
Jane stops at a dilapidated roadside café, ominously called the Epicerie à la mal tournée(literally “the store at the bad turn”), where the proprietress castigates her for travelling alone on a road with a notorious reputation, though she declines to say why, and Jane struggles to understand her French anyway. Meanwhile, Cathy has hung out various pieces of underwear to dry on nearby branches, creating a jungle of lingerie in her idyllic woodland clearing. She now slaps sunscreen on every inch of her torso and leans back, ready for more sunbathing.
An air of malevolence has imbued everything so far, stemming from two themes. While a closed, claustrophobic environment is the more familiar horror trope, And Soon the Darkness relies on the openness of the landscape; roads and fields seem to stretch infinitely (think of the crop-dusting sequence in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest or the scenes preceding Gromek’s murder in his Torn Curtain, just a year before this film); while menace usually lurks in the shadows, here it is diffused freely in the daylight. The second theme is the foreignness of the voices that surround the girls, from the fellow patrons of the restaurant where they ate to the voices on the radio and the austere ranting of the woman at the café. So far, the girls alone speak English. As a pair they are physically and socially remote from their environment, and now, at what is sure to be a mal tournée, they are physically and socially remote from each other. The portentous opening act is about to reach its dreadful conclusion.
Watch this sequence:
We cut to a long shot of the clearing. We see the road, the bicycle propped against a tree to the left, and Cathy’s still body among tufts of tall grass. The only sound is the static coming from the radio, which has lost its frequency. We cut to a close-up of the radio, and the camera pans across the sun-scorched lawn to Cathy’s face. The camera remains for more than ten seconds before her eyes open – we suspected the worst, but we’ve been reprieved.
She looks directly up into the sky, where an airplane leaves a trail across the cloudless sky. It’s a sign of human life, but it’s far away, reinforcing the sense that Cathy is remote from any ally.
She sits up as she becomes aware of the radio static. She looks disoriented. She hastily switches off the radio, as if silencing this eerie soundtrack were enough to hold off whatever threatens her. Laurie Johnson’s music, which consists of low, Herrmannesque woodwinds interspersed with a more jazzy brass theme, has long since stopped. Now, all we hear is the chirping of insects.
Cut to a medium shot of Jane as, sensing danger, she begins to assemble her belongings. We see again the lingerie hanging in the trees, and we’d be forgiven for thinking the filmmakers chose Cathy as victim in a variant of the classic movie theme of the wanton female whose sensuality and immodesty must be punished. But while we know Cathy to be a voyeur (she watched the stranger through her camera), ostentatious (she dresses so as to leave her cleavage and midriff visible) and gossipy (she refers to a colleague’s boyfriend as “the one with the big nose”), she’s no mere “bimbo.” She thinks about life and death – so her roadside conversation with Jane, before their argument, when she wonders out loud whether a dead baby at the hospital the week before knew anything of its plight, or felt anything. Ironically, it’s Jane who finds such philosophizing hard to understand, asking, “Whatever made you think of that?” Cathy thinks, then replies: “I don’t know… On a day like this, it… seems such a pity.”
A rustle startles Cathy as she is preparing to leave. She hesitantly calls for Jane but receives no answer. “Is that you, Jane?” Still there is only the buzzing of insects, until a strange-sounding bird call startles her again. She speeds up her preparations. Something alerts her – what, we don’t know – and she holds on to the branch of a tree, as if in the absence of something familiar, she will look to anything for security. She moves through the bushes, and as she surveys her surroundings, she clutches a towel to her lips, as a child holds a teddy for safety.
We see all this in close-up, isolating Cathy from her environment. Suddenly, we hear the crash of her bicycle. In this alien world where every sound takes on significance, this sound seems too much like interference, probably human. (As well as the stranger, we’ve already been introduced to a line-up of suspects, including a gendarme and a farmer in a field.)
Cathy runs back to the clearing, and we cut to the bicycle on the ground, its rear wheel spinning after the disturbance. Then there’s the sound of a car, and Cathy runs into the road for help; we see the car approaching, then speeding off into the distance, despite Cathy’s attempt to flag it down. Again we see the long stretch of road, disappearing into the horizon.
Abandoned miles from anywhere, her only hope for rescue dashed, Cathy is seen in profile, in extreme close-up. The ticking of the bicycle wheel slows, the camera cuts to it as it comes to a stop, and then back to Cathy, looking almost into the camera. Still in extreme close-up, her expression is fixed in fear, her eyes alone moving, darting from side to side. The director is not afraid of lingering shots and held silence.
She purses her lips in decision, then walks back from the road and picks up her remaining things – a bra, a blanket, a towel. Last of all, she goes to the bicycle. There is a clatter as she sets it upright. Cut to Cathy’s point-of-view as the rising bicycle wheel comes into view, almost full-frame – revealing a purposely wrecked bicycle wheel. Cut back to a close-up of Cathy, seen through its mangled spokes. It’s another lengthy shot – over twenty seconds – as Cathy’s frozen expression gives way to an open mouth. After four minutes without music, tremolo strings subtly crescendo and decrescendo. Pause, then another low, held note, almost a rumble. Another rustle from the bushes, and Cathy looks up.
Cut to the bushes, and the camera pans down to reveal Cathy from behind. “Oh, no,” she whispers. “Oh, dear God, no.” She backs slowly away from the bicycle. We hear only the low rumble of the orchestra and the sound of Cathy’s footsteps in the grass as she treads backwards. As her figure almost fills the frame, an undergarment lands on her, as if dropped or thrown. There is a trumpet blare as she turns round and looks at her pursuer, who we don’t see. We cut to the road as a car approaches. Do we hear Cathy scream? Or is it the screeching of the speeding car? Or is it the blare of the trumpets? All sounds meld into one, and we can’t be sure what has happened. Nor will we be sure until the final reel. All we know is that Cathy is now missing, and Jane must find her – before the soon-coming darkness.
This article is an entry in “Dr Knox’s Casebook,” a semi-regular feature in Diabolique magazine