Saturday, 22 August 2015

Darklands (1996)

I can't actually recall when I first saw Darklands. I just recall it being on some TV channel late at night either in the late '90s or the early '00s and have a vague idea it may have been on Sky movies prior to that, but I can't be sure. Whilst I enjoyed it and found it diverting enough at the time, I was a bit dismissive of it I must say, largely because I'd not long since seen The Wicker Man. To me, it just looked like something extremely derivative of Robin Hardy's cult classic. I didn't realise at the time how derivative The Wicker Man itself was. I doubt I knew or understood the pagan mythology and legend of John Barleycorn back then, now that I do Darklands has actually gone up in my estimations on this rewatch. It's hardly surprising either; it's actually refreshing to see an early entry in what has become known as the revival of the British horror genre that stands apart from the formulaic and repetitive dirge being churned out in its name now - all those [insert subsection of society here] Vs [insert traditional horror creature here] titles - I think the only one they haven't done yet is Chavs Vs Werewolves

Darklands stars Craig Fairbrass stars as Frazer Truick, an investigative journalist born in Wales but taken to London in his formative years (which explains his cockney accent) he now finds himself back in the town of his birth after being dumped by Fleet Street for writing a story they couldn't defend. 

So OK, that's the first credibility stretch - Fairbrass as a cockney sounding Welshman. The second is that, for an investigative reporter, he struggles to see the truth when its standing right in front of him and tweaking his pumped up pectorals. No matter, I'm one of those people who actually find Fairbrass quite charismatic and watchable borne from the fact that I grew up watching him in the likes of Prime Suspect and London's Burning and then going 'No way, that's Technique!' when he popped up in major Hollywood action flick Cliffhanger. I will stick my neck out here and say this is one of his most satisfying central vehicles, primarily because it's just really nice to see him play something likeable and something other than a gangster.

Darklands opens with some atmospheric shots of industrial Wales - Port Talbot to be exact - interspersed with scenes featuring some grungy alternative circus looking types performing a sort of prototype Stomp! These look like the kind of people who rock up at Glastonbury making art with chainsaws and bits of old flatbed trucks and remind you that the 90s really were a bit of a cultural oasis; a no man's land of identity, fashions and style whereupon anything remotely 'alt' looking was leapt upon to provide the shorthand for 'sinister' and 'strange'. Throw in a few gypsies - as Darklands goes on to do - and you have an audience convinced these boyos are up to no good. Sure enough, the next thing we see them do is drag a squealing pig into the space by the ears (this moment is not for the squeamish, animal lover!) and promptly slit its throat and string it up in a vaguely 'sacrificial' manner.

Frazer, and his new colleague Rachel (the glamourous looking Rowena King), are called to the local church where the pig' remains have been unceremoniously dumped, along with Celtic writing daubed on the walls in its blood. This isn't the first time such desecration has occurred and it's clear that this is a story Frazer wants to get to the bottom of, but he's soon sidetracked by Rachel who asks him to investigate the death of her brother, a steelworker who she feels got mixed up in a strange cult in the town. It isn't long before Frazer believes the two investigations are linked and his digging around leads him to a Nationalist MP (Jon Finch) and a sinister well dressed man called Carver (David Duffy)  as well as revelations about those closest to him. 

Efficiently directed by first timer Julian Richards, Darklands cherrypicks from several classic horrors. There's more than a pinch of The Omen, a touch of Rosemary's Baby, a liberal dose of the classic, chilling Play For Today
Robin Redbreast and then of course there's the aforementioned The Wicker Man. There's even an air of the '70s Hammer movies in the rather lurid, baby oil slicked depiction of ceremonial sex! But it's all done with obvious affection and with a sense of atmosphere and it has developed something of its own retro style too now that the years have moved on, making it all really rather enjoyable.

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