31 Days to Scare ~ Dark Places (1974)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A scheming couple plots to conceal a hidden cache of stolen money from its rightful owner. The only problem is that the house in which they plan to hide it is haunted.
Stars: Robert Hardy, Christopher Lee, Joan Collins, Jane Birkin, Jean Marsh, Herbert Lom
Director: Don Sharp
Rated: PG
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: This 31 Days to Scare every year requires creativity. You want to cover a range of films, but they can’t all be older titles, and you don’t want to include the brand-new movies everyone has already seen. So, you go on the hunt for lesser-known work that might be the hidden gem you’ve been missing out on, and that often means you wind up lurking around 70s British films. Made for a song and starring a host of recognizable talent, these were usually filmed as tax breaks for wealthy producers not necessarily looking to make the next horror classic. Occasionally, a hit emerges, but these larks are justifiably well-forgotten and often hard to find to evaluate in the first place.

Falling down a rabbit hole the other day, I came across Dark Places and must admit the cover drew me in more than anything else. How pleasing to find it contained the main cast comprised of formidable stars plus a director who had a healthy experience with the genre. At a swift 90 minutes, I figured I would try out this indie feature (yes, you’d call it an indie) from the UK and be no worse than the wear for it after. While it’s not an undiscovered classic, Dark Places is considerably well crafted and more restrained in the acting and overall production design than other similar features. 

Inheriting the rundown Marr’s Grove mansion by its dying owner, whom he befriended during his final days, Edward Foster (Robert Hardy, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) arrives at the quaint English country village hoping to move into his new home without hassle. Unaware that the former owner and the estate have a sordid history, he soon learns of the murders supposedly committed by his generous benefactor. Though no bodies were ever found, neither were the four victims that vanished without a trace. Two suitcases full of money also went missing that day, and it’s generally believed they were stashed away in the house.

Dr. Ian Mandeville (Christopher Lee, Dracula, Prince of Darkness) and his sister Sarah (Joan Collins, Tales from the Crypt) believe the story is true and hoped to obtain the house from Dr. Mandeville’s patient…but Edward happens to get in the way. Sarah is sent to work her charms on the new homeowner, and it isn’t long before she gets close enough to him to be let in on his progress on finding the money. However, when strange events start to occur that suggest the home is honestly haunted by the ghosts of two children and a murdered governess, and Edward starts to have flashbacks that place him in the shoes of the suspected killer, two realities begin to mesh with dangerous consequences.

Director Don Sharp oversaw several well-known productions for Hammer Studios, and he brings some of that spooky suspense to Dark Places. True, there are limitations to what can be done with a script by Ed Brennan & Joseph Van Winkle that is more dramatic than horrific, but Sharp and co-screenwriter James Hannah Jr. do what they can to spice things up. It helps that the actors are strong enough to sell some reasonably silly set-ups and executions, even if Hardy is a slight dud in the leading man department. Of course, when you’re fixed in the mesmerizing gaze of Collins (who was 40 here but looked 15 years younger), you play along with whatever she’s telling you. While I’ll always appreciate Lee’s presence, this isn’t one of his more alert performances.

The film takes a while to get moving (translation: it’s slow) and even longer to make clear what story is being told. Is it a haunting tale requiring Edward to identify the ghosts and their plan? Or is it another mystery to solve, asking the audience to play detective along with Edward and close an open case that has been keeping the town gossip occupied for years? Unfortunately, the performances of Jane Birkin (Death on the Nile) and Jean Marsh (The Changeling) suffer, getting lost in the tumult. Conscientious viewers that like these kinds of UK features so prevalent in this era will appreciate Dark Places for how nicely produced it is, even if it doesn’t always supply the fear factor it desperately needs. It’s still worth checking out if you can track it down.