Afraid of the Dark

(Mark Peploe, UK, 1991)


From its first frames, Afraid of the Dark evokes a splendid history of British horror films and psychological thrillers of the 1960s and ’70s – from the frightened child of The Innocents (1961) and the psychotic cameraman of Peeping Tom (1960) to the blind mystic of Don’t Look Now (1973). Mark Peploe, scriptwriter for Bertolucci, Antonioni and Monte Hellman, here makes his directorial debut, wisely eschewing naturalism for a spare, vividly expressionistic style.

The story is seen from the viewpoint of young Lucas (Ben Keyworth), who is plunged into panic when he realizes that a local serial killer will probably soon attack his blind mother (Fanny Ardant). Since the police work of his father (James Fox) seems ineffectual, Lucas secretly becomes a detective, and is soon finding abundant signs of psychosis and perversion in every rear window of the neighbourhood.

Following this plot, one becomes naggingly aware of certain unreal or improbable elements: the near-empty streets peopled only by the blind; or Lucas’ uncanny ability to stealthily penetrate any abode, just like his beloved Spiderman. These are not artistic misjudgments; Peploe is preparing for a daring gear-shift at the half-way mark, one that nudges Afraid of the Dark into the territory of Alain Resnais’ masterpiece Providence (1977).

Those who like their psychological thrillers to play fair by conventional narrative rules may feel cheated by Peploe’s gambit. But this is a modernist thriller which really works, in contrast to so many recent efforts of British independent cinema (such as the dismal Young Soul Rebels [1992]) which try to spice up their progressive political agendas with a few elementary generic shocks.

Peploe’s ultimate focus is on Lucas as a disturbed child haunted by all manner of ghastly familial phantasms, and the film indelibly captures his private terror.

© Adrian Martin July 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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