Sunday, April 06, 2008

I'VE NEVER SEEN A GREATER EXAMPLE OF GOTHIC TERROR ON THE SCREEN THAN THE MADE FOR BBC-TV "THE DARK ANGEL". Now, you may throw "REBECCA" or "JANE EYRE" at me but I'm telling you nothing captures the true essence of the "Had-I-But-Known" Gothic 19th century novel like this movie. The only thing I've seen come close in recent years is the 1990's remake of "THE SECRET GARDEN": if only in its first half hour.
"THE DARK ANGEL" was made for BBC-TV in 1988 and aired on PBS's MYSTERY series circa 1990. It is adapted from perhaps the very first gothic psychological thriller novel "Uncle Silas" by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu (author of the more famous vampire novella "Carmilla"). Now, no one was more gothic perhaps than LeFanu; who spent his life after his wife's sudden death as a morbid recluse writing ghost stories. LeFanu, like me, also seemed to suffer from a continuing nightmare of being inside a huge gothic house that collapsed on top of him. When he finally died of a heart attack in his bed, his physician said "The house finally fell on him". . .or words to that effect.
"Uncle Silas" was pure gothic terror in the true definition of the term. To quote Professor Ann B. Tracy:

  • "The original Gothic heroines were never dowdy governesses, nor...were they accustomed to be seen abroad in their nightgowns; they were aristocratic knockouts, orphans or semi-orphans, brought into hostile environments by kidnapping or flight, typically, rather than by employment or marriage. Their nocturnal adventures usually found them fully clothed, they having earlier dropped upon their moldy beds from shock and exhaustion. The environment, however, not the heroine, distinguishes Classic Gothic; as well as the traditional clutter of castles, bones, monks, owls and tapestries, the novels conjure up a psychic environment that stresses delusion, mistaken identity, lunacy, unexpected cataclysm, pursuit, suspense, pitfalls and the brevity of human happiness. The Gothic world in the novels of Ann Radcliffe and depraved and unstable,a place theologians would identify as fallen, where heroines are ill-advised to trust their own perceptions or even the evidence of their senses, let alone any human relationship or institution. Physical circumstances contribute to a feeling of moral decay: ruined castles, grass growing in broken crenelations, tapestries hanging in tatters; gardens instead of forests, darkness instead of daylight. Ancestral sins are visited upon the innocent. Heroines are without the support of their families: generally, mothers are dead; frequently fathers are,too. Uncles are notoriously unreliable, often villainous, intent upon rape or murder..."
I quoted this passage in its entirety because it almost perfectly describes the story of "Uncle Silas" in "THE DARK ANGEL". Maud Ruthyn (Beatie Edney: daughter of actress Sylvia Syms and starred in "HIGHLANDER") is our Gothic heroine here: a young woman under 21 who stands to inherit beaucoup cash and estates from her father Austin Ruthyn (Alan MacNaughton of Hammer's "FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN"). Maud also has an Uncle Silas (the indomitable Peter O'Toole) who is the black sheep of the family. Silas has been involved in a multitude of scandals and debauchery throughout his life resulting in a rift between him and the rest of the Ruthyn clan. However, a large mysterious portrait of Silas hangs in the house enthralling Maud. Before long, a horrible French governess is hired for Maud: Madame de la Rougierre (spectacularly played by Jane Lapotaire) quickly begins to torment Maud as all mad Gothic governesses should. After causing Maud quite a bit of grief, Madame is seen rifling through Austin Ruthyn's private papers and sent packing -- but not before promising to get even with Maud.
Before too much longer, Austin Ruthyn dies coughing up blood. The will states that Maud is to be remanding into her Uncle Silas' custody until she reaches the age of 21 and inherits her father's fortune. Maud journey's to her uncle's gothic pile and soon meets the enigmatic man of the portrait. Silas appears quite ill and constantly takes his medicine (which is soon revealed to be opium). Silas has squandered most of his money and the creditors are barking at his door. With Maud now under his control, what do you think the odds are for Gothic mayhem???
Director Peter Hammond masterfully conjures the feel of Gothic terror. Hammond directed some pre-Emma Peel episodes of THE AVENGERS as well as some Jeremy Brett SHERLOCK HOLMES adventures, a 1978 BBC production of WUTHERING HEIGHTS and some episodes of Roald Dahl's TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED but I don't seem to have seen any of them -- so I don't know if all his stuff is this gothic or not. Whatever they were like, "THE DARK ANGEL" is pure Gothic terror from beginning to end. The director uses windows and reflections quite beautifully throughout to conjure "false images"; very apropos for this type of movie. Peter O'Toole is absolutely perfect casting as the dissolute but menacing Uncle Silas and Jane Lapotaire is likewise superb in the role of the laudunum-swilling, ghastly white-faced madwoman governess. Beatie Edney might be in danger of being eclipsed by two such towering performances but she surprisingly holds her own; giving a spot on interpretation of a classic Gothic heroine. While one sees what's in store for her long before Maud catches on herself (and secretly delights in the lip-smacking deviltry cooked up for her), one also genuinely feels for her and roots for her to triumph over the evil that besets her. Another much-welcome presence is Hammer Horror veteran Barbara Shelley (Dracula - Prince of Darkness, The Gorgon, Quatermass and the Pit and many others) as Maud's benevolent but outflanked cousin Monica.
For anyone even remotely interested in Gothic terror, the horror genre or just a cracking good thrill, "THE DARK ANGEL" is nearly unsurpassed. This is perhaps unfortunate since it does not appear to be available on video (and definitely not on DVD as yet). The only copy I have to view I taped from that long-ago 1990 TV broadcast of MYSTERY. Of course, if you're good and say your prayers, I could always be persuaded to give you a peek at one of the most Gothic two and a half hours you're ever likely to see. And after all these years, it was indeed a treat for me to see it once again.