(Julian Richards, UK, 1996)
Welsh director Julian Richards' first feature is an ambitious conspiracy horror film about modern day pagans making human sacrifices in post-industrial Wales. It is the third feature in the genre from producer Paul Brooks and the British Metrodome production company - the first two outings being Beyond Bedlam and Proteus. Both of those earlier films starred ex-London's Burning man Craig Fairbrass and he appears here as reporter Frazer Truick. After loosing a job in London, Truick returns to his native Wales and finds work on a small regional newspaper. A trainee journalist, Rachel Morris (Rowena King), is assigned to work with him. Rachel's brother, a steel worker, recently died in an accident; however, Rachel believes he was murdered and that his death has something to do with a religious cult he became involved with. Frazer agrees to look into his death with Rachel but soon comes into conflict with a powerful local businessman David Keller (Jon Finch), who has political ambitions and is closely involved in keeping the region's ancient history alive which he promotes in a revivalist festival. With the help of a defrocked preacher, Frazer eventually uncovers the truth behind Rachel's brother's death, the secretive religious cult and his own heritage.
Clearly influenced by 70s conspiracy/paranoia films like The Manchurian Candidate and horror films such as The Wicker Man, Darklands has a lot of ideas and a lot going on. Whilst Richards' doesn't quite manage to pull off all he seemingly wanted to, he has turned in a film that resolutely strives not to follow the standard horror genre conventions. The characters are all very real and fleshed out in great detail for the first half of the running time; so too are the background issues that make Darklands stand out from the crowd. Writer/director Richards correctly sees the Welsh setting as the ace up his sleeve. Not only does this help the film in an obvious, visual sense, with the use of some grim and sinister locations, but the region's history and culture also play their part in the screenplay. From the atmospheric opening shot of an industrial skyline, to the divide between the Welsh and non-Welsh speaking halves of the community, Darklands is rooted in a real world which makes the shocking and eerie events of the second half all the more believable.
The cast are uniformly good. Fairbrass as the lead (although still occasionally awkward) delivers his most accomplished performance to date and the supporting cast couldn't be better. Rowena King, veteran Jon Finch (from Polanski's Macbeth and Hitchcock's Frenzy) and new face David Duffy are all perfectly cast and deliver performances uncommonly good for the genre. Darklands feels like a classy 70s horror movie in the vein of The Omen, The Exorcist and most directly The Wicker Man. That's because it primarily concerns itself with psychological, rather than physical, terror. There are no prosthetics, gushings of blood, or screaming teenagers here. However, some of the characters do sit a little uncomfortably. Roger Nott does well with the 'mad preacher who knows the truth but nobody believes' stereotype he's given, and not even a five year old would win a prize for spotting David Duffy's Carver as a "baddie" who, whilst well-acted, has to do so through a cheesy (and somewhat obvious) costume of all-black: full length leather coat, leather gloves, turned-up collar and crucifix pendant. Hmm.
The structure of the film, although clearly deliberate in order to establish real characters in a real world before they make their decent into terror all the more shocking, suffers from being torn between two extremes. The first half - real-life drama - the second half, at times, almost surreal terror - are poles apart and you need to be patient for the film to deliver the shocks. Director Richards was clearly going for a Psycho/Wicker Man approach here but doesn't quite suffuse the first half with enough underlying tension for it to work fully. However, once we are tipped over the edge, Richards delivers. Again we're not talking buckets of blood but an almost palpable sense of unease is evident. A climactic night journey for Fairbrass upon a deserted train is the pièce de résistance and displays just how good a director Richards is. Truick is trapped in the locked carriage with no lighting as it hurtles through the desolate Welsh landscape - the lights from the exterior flashing crazily, creating a terrifying otherworld that momentarily recalls the haunting visions seen in Jacob's Ladder. Certainly flawed but a film you should see - for Richards is clearly a director to watch.