Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Something Creeping in the Dark (1971)

It was a dark and stormy night.  Ten jerks find themselves in an old, dark house, and weird things start to occur.  This is the premise for Mario Colucci’s Something Creeping in the Dark (aka Qualcosa Striscia nel Buio aka Shadows in the Dark), and this set up, if nothing else, is one of the most clichéd of the horror and mystery genres.  The reason is obvious.  Storms act as visual portents, bad omens of things to come.  They also give dramatic tension to scenes, because the characters are usually a bit stressed from the effects of the storm (the dangers of driving, being stuck out of doors in the rain, etcetera).  Maybe they bicker more than usual.  Maybe they’re a bit more anxious or cranky.  But, assuredly, they reveal themselves, because the strain and tumult of the tempest makes them forget their normal polite facades.  The director opens this film with his characters driving through the rain, and many shots are obscured by it, keeping the viewer off kilter, never quite sure of what they are seeing while still being recognizable enough.  Like the characters, the audience becomes embroiled in the restlessness of the environment in this way.

Storms also act as a means to gather a disparate group in one location and see what happens when things go south.  Here, the characters wind up in the manse of the late Lady Sheila Marlowe (a clear reference to Christopher Marlowe, the author of Doctor Faustus, played in portraiture only by Loredana Nusciak), a place that looks as ornately musty yet still kind of like a medieval dungeon as any ever put to film.  Rather cleverly, the film gives us an Agatha Christie-esque layout, and the expectation is that any oddities that happen will be explained away by the end as the doings of a human.  It’s a classic weird pulp framework, those stories that, essentially, became the formula for every episode of Scooby Doo (and quite a few gialli).  However, Colucci takes a sharp right turn and brings the actual supernatural into the mix, and the film plays both sides of the fence up until its conclusion, even while it tells us flat out that a specter is involved.  This is done by the introduction of Spike (Farley Granger), a “homicidal maniac” whom Inspector Wright (Dino Fazio) has captured and is bringing to justice.  This means that the characters can act out some of their darker impulses, because they have an easy scapegoat.  For example, Joe (Gianni Medici), the housekeeper, threatens his girlfriend (Giulia Rovai) with murder, knowing he can lay it off on Spike, who makes a habit of escaping throughout the film.  Sylvia (Lucia Bosé) fantasizes about seducing and then murdering Spike, a sharp contrast to the dull, bitter relationship she has with her husband Don (Giacomo Rossi Stuart).  Basically, the storm washes away all but the innermost desires of the film’s characters.

Something Creeping in the Dark is a brooding film, filled with a sense of doom, and it contains much superficial philosophical musings on existential matters.  The characters recognize their flaws, and the inescapability of their situation traps them inside themselves (in much the same way that they are trapped in the house).  They are left to act out their repressions or be consumed by them (possibly both).  The ghost of Lady Marlowe is the impetus for this.  She passes from character to character, possesses them for a time, and either kills them or shows them up for what they are.  Susan West (Mia Genberg) is the flinty assistant to Doctor Williams (Stelvio Rosi).  The doctor was en route to perform an emergency surgery, something which he quickly gets over when he finds out that he won’t get there in time.  Susan clearly harbors unspoken feelings for him, and Marlowe provides her the opportunity to express them.  Yet, after they consummate, Susan doesn’t feel freed of her emotional constraints.  She feels violated instead of satisfied, and she rejects Williams’ attempt to console her.  Rather than bring them together at long last, the playing out of Susan’s desirous impulses may keep them apart forever because her agency was taken away (or was her “possession” an act she now regrets?).  

The filmmakers portray Marlowe’s ghost via a high angle tracking camera (with fish eye lens) that floats down hallways, extinguishing lights as it approaches.  It is an omniscient viewpoint, and Marlowe is, virtually, God (and a capricious God, at that).  She toys with her playthings, enjoys making them dance for her amusement.  It is also conceivable that Marlowe’s possession of various characters is her own attempt at breaking out of her purgatorial/existential prison, of finding some meaning to the spiritual torment she is in.  Finding no satisfaction in this, it’s just as easy to kill her toys in a spiteful, childish lashing out against ineluctable circumstances.

The film is difficult to recommend, though I really would like to.  It takes tropes and plays with them, juggling between the corporeal and the preternatural.  It is loaded with style, and Colucci dives into some psychedelia, but he makes it work by anchoring it within his characters’ minds rather than as some overwrought visual display to take the audience on a “freak out.”  The director also takes about a half a page from Robert Wise’s book (i.e. his direction of the superlative The Haunting), using suggestion as much as he does directness.  It is entirely possible that human hands are behind the film’s nefariousness.  It is entirely possible that the human hands behind the film’s nefariousness are being manipulated by a supernatural force.  It is entirely possible that a malevolent spirit alone is behind the film’s nefariousness.  And Colucci allows that it may be all three simultaneously.  The major problem with the film is that it is both repetitive and sluggish.  Spike makes off into the nearby woods and has it out with the cops not once, but twice.  The Spike character is also, in my opinion, underutilized, considering his potential (and Granger’s talent; he does give his all here).  When the characters aren’t standing in the living room talking circularly or shooting barbs at one another, they are in their individual rooms talking circularly or shooting barbs at one another.  Interesting ideas are brought up and then left floating, and the climax is both predictable and a bit silly in its aftermath.  Something Creeping in the Dark is a film worth seeing (I finally made up my mind), though maybe not on a dark and stormy night, because you may fall asleep during it.

MVT:  Colucci brings a thoughtful sense to his direction.

Make or Break:  The séance scene is tense and creepy, while being distinctly Italian and a little goofy.

Score:  6.5/10

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