Dark Angel (1987)

Based on the original gothic thriller Uncle Silas, this BBC production is moody, intense, and spine-tingling. It's one of the best examples of the genre that I've seen, with haunting sets, gorgeous costuming design, and sinister dramatic acting. Maud Ruthlyn (Beatie Edney) is the only daughter of a gentleman. She has not had a governess for some time and her mother died when she was very young, leaving her to the care of loving housekeeper Mary Quince (Norma Shebbeare). In the great hall downstairs hangs a painting of her Uncle Silas, an eccentric dark horse in the family. His scandalous debts in the past have made him an outcast in society and he dwells in distinguished poverty in the next county. Maud has never made the acquaintance of her father's brother, but knows from his portrait that he must be wonderful.


When a new French governess, Madame La Rougiere (Jane Lapotaire) comes to the house, Maud's happiness rapidly begins to fail. The Madame is pleasant and charming in her father's presence but alone can be malicious and cruel. She is prone to drinking brandy, waltzing around the graveyard, poking into their business affairs, keeping strange company in off hours, and slapping her charge. Beneath all of this, Maud's father remains oblivious to the woman's treachery as he manages business affairs and completes his will. One evening Maud falls asleep in the drawing room and awakens to find Madame La Rougiere breaking into her father's trunk. She rifles through his legal documents and reads over the newly completed will. The following afternoon she is dismissed, vowing revenge upon Maud for her part in the discharge. Not long afterward, Maud's father makes her promise to uphold the family honor in doing whatever his will dictates. She agrees and only a few days later her father dies covered in blood.


Rather than leave her to the care of Cousin Monica (Barbara Shelley) as everyone anticipated, Maud's guardianship is left to Uncle Silas. Despite the concerns of her cousin and the family doctor, Maud journeys to his mournful house for the final year of her childhood. Upon turning twenty-one he will no longer have care over her. The rumors surrounding Uncle Silas (Peter O'Toole) are grotesque and sinister... an unsolved crime believed a suicide or murder once took place in his great old house. The servants are sinister, Silas' son Dudley (Tim Woodward) has taken a dark interest in her, and yet through it all Maud is captivated by her rogue uncle's charm. Eventually her life will take a bleak turn into a brooding nightmare from which there is no easy escape. Throughout the beginning of the tale, The Dark Angel is captivating, with gripping characters, intriguing plot points, and absolutely beautiful filmmaking. The director likes to use unique camera angles, making great use of mirrors and window reflections to add increased interest and suspense.


In the opening commentary Diana Rigg says that the original novel has the ability to captivate, not startling us all at once with its spine-tingling horror but slowly seeping into your blood until all courage fails and we are caught along with Maud in this great and terrible adventure. The movie follows much the same pattern, first luring us in with the promise of greater things and then slowly increasing levels of danger and chills until it comes to a violent, dramatic climax. I was most impressed with the leading actors. O'Toole is perfect as Uncle Silas, a mysterious, seductive character whom we instinctively mistrust yet also chillingly like. As the tale increases, he becomes more devious and malevolent. The real gem here is Beatie Edney in the role of our leading lady. Not only is she absolutely beautiful, but there's sincere talent at work behind her nervous energy. The part of Madame is also well portrayed, and the costuming is lovely. The real fault lies with some unexplained events, nightmares and hallucinations.


They are filmed in order to give us a sense of Maud's emotions at the time, but instead tend toward melodrama and weaken the worth of the film. On several occasions we don't know if she's dreaming or actually seeing things, such as when she runs to her door and blood starts dripping on her from the ceiling. It plays a major role in much of the latter half, first showing us a blood-stained corpse laying face-down in bed in a flashback (Maud dreams that she finds this corpse and lifts the bloody sheets), then with various violent events at the climax. Before it's over a woman has been hacked to death (actual impact unseen, but we're forced to listen, and view the killer drenched in her blood, as well as a far-off glimpse of the murky results and a close-up of her eyes), another strangled, and a third overdoses on laudanum. Two men scrap over a girl in a lengthy battle; one is finally flung into the mud. There's a heavy presence of opium (Silas is an addict, and they use it to drug Maud) and alcohol. Several mild profanities crop up toward the end. There is no sexual content but there is a certain air to much of the film.


Families during this time were more physically affectionate to one another, but modern audiences might be uncomfortable with lip-kissing between Silas and Maud. It happens on two occasions. Dudley also lengthily kisses his sister on the mouth (against her wishes) in departure. Madame La Rougiere is shown in her corset numerous times, usually intoxicated. Dudley chases Maud down and pins her to the ground, but doesn't take advantage in any way. His father reprimands him for being such a "poor seducer," and laments that if he'd been doing the wooing, he would have "had her long ago." It's implied he was something of a rake in bygone days. These elements give the piece a rather uncomfortable air. The last twenty minutes, in which our heroine is in peril, also drag out for far too long, and the film abruptly ends without explaining everything. It is a fascinating addition to the genre but not without its flaws.

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