Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Eye Spy

It seems like all the best thrillers contain an unhealthy amount of voyeurism. Rear Window, Psycho and Peeping Tom are three prime examples of the visual fetish. But despite the practice's creepy connotations, it's not necessarily performed by an evil antagonist character in every story. Yes, sometimes the voyeur is indeed a villainous stalker watching and waiting for the opportunity to pounce on an unaware victim. But just as often, he's the hero who espies something nefarious while involved in some surreptitious peeping and intercedes to put things right. In Mark Peploe's 1991 low-key thriller, Afraid of the Dark, you're not quite sure what to make of the enigmatic little boy who always seems to be in the right place at the right time to witness something awful. And that's what makes the film worth watching.

Synopsis: The blind community of a large English village is terrorized by a razor-wielding slasher while a young boy looks on.

The story is told from the perspective of the unassuming, quiet, Lucas (Ben Keyworth), an only child who lives with his parents, Frank (James Fox) and Miriam (Fanny Ardant). Frank is a local policeman and Miriam is a visually impaired homemaker, so when a lunatic begins slashing the faces of blind women in town, the family is doubly invested in the crimes. That the slasher does not kill his victims but only disfigures their faces somehow makes the incidents even more disturbing and has everyone in the community including Miriam understandably freaked out. After Lucas overhears a conversation between his parents concerning the attacks, it's not long before he witnesses one through his telescope.

What differentiates Lucas from other heroic voyeur characters in similar mysteries is that he doesn't appear to be "on the case". Rather he just keeps stumbling into the vicinity of where the victims happen to be when the attacks take place. This seems much too coincidental but it is more than satisfactorily accounted for in the brilliant second half of the film. Lucas likewise runs into creepy suspects like the window washer (Struan Rodger) who works at the clinic for the blind, and the locksmith (David Thewlis) who lasciviously eyes Miriam's friend, Rose (Clare Holman), while working at her flat. Even Lucas' eventual run-in with the killer appears to be pure happenstance but makes logical sense when the explanation is subsequently inferred. 

Spoiler Alert (Not whodunnit, just what it all means)
The mystery gets solved at exactly the halfway point of the film and it is a tense, effective and satisfying climax. But with the story wrapped up, what happens next? Would Lucas grow up damaged and become a criminal himself? Would he be spurred on and become a cop like his dad? Would he catch pneumonia and die from being out in the rain while spying on the slasher? Actually, none of these things would happen. Maybe someone smarter than me could have been tipped by the child-like storytelling of the first half with its amazing coincidences and heroic conclusion, but I doubt it. With no fanfare or overt explanation, the movie basically reboots at the halfway point. What occurs in the beginning of the second half is an interesting shuffling of the characters and their traits that will leave most viewers momentarily flummoxed. For example, the Fanny Ardant character is still Lucas' mother and she is not blind but very pregnant. Her friend, Rose, is now her stepdaughter and Lucas' sister. Lucas' dad is not a cop but a florist. Several of the supporting characters are similarly scrambled but the most telling detail concerns Lucas himself - he's going blind. Once this information is revealed, the first half comes into focus clearly. And while Lucas was the somewhat morally ambiguous hero of the first half, he may well be the villain of the latter part of the story. Still, it's not cut-and-dried, while Lucas is weird and possibly unhinged, he remains an interesting, somewhat sympathetic enigma who is as opaque as his coke-bottle glasses and as threatening as his knitting needle.

Director and co-writer, Mark Peploe, who received an Oscar for co-writing The Last Emperor created a really nice Hitchcockian piece here that reminded me a lot of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. The movie is subdued but there are some very effective suspense and horror elements scattered throughout that prevent it from ever becoming dull. There are some style components also like the blowing red curtains framing the window where Lucas witnesses an attack and the mirror reflecting him and his awesome peepers in the opthamologist's office. The cast is deep and consists of some strong English character actors along with the French Ardant and even the smaller supporting roles are played by very recognizable veterans like Paul McGann, Sheila Burrell and Robert Stephens. The story structure with its discombobulating break at the halfway point may be its strongest feature and certainly makes for a unique film.

Score 7.75/10