by Bob Freville
The following review originally appeared on the now-defunct horror website KillingBoxx in the Fall of 2011. It is shared here in the hopes that a new generation of readers will discover this woefully forgotten DtoDVD gem.
“How dare you…You made me feel like I was mad!”
The color yellow is symbolic of many things. To the eternal optimist it signifies bright rays of sunshine and exists as a “warm” color, one that represents the hope of a loved one’s return or the promise of a cheerful occasion. For the Egyptians it is a tone emblematic of mourning. For us horror fans it is, and will always be, related to the gialli (the Horror films of Argento, Bava and Fulci, and, quite literally, the Italian word whose translation means “Yellow”). Yellow is also, most significantly, the color which actors of the Middle Ages wore to connote the Dead.
Yellow is the color of Horror and of the Dead, a color of hazard and Danger. So it is no mere fashion statement for Anna Veigh (Leelee Sobieski) to wear yellow clothes in virtually every scene of Donato Rotunno’s In A Dark Place. Anna’s life is consumed by the dead and, more appropriately, Death.
In A Dark Place is a widely overlooked and sorely underrated 2006 adaptation of Henry James’ classic Turn of the Screw. And aside from earning four cleavers for so exquisitely displaying Ms. Sobieski’s ample bosom (without so much as one arbitrary topless scene), it scores plentiful points for purveying all the goods of a grand Gothic slash bash (a gorgeous alien-like female lead with no small semblance of complexity, a steamy but classy lesbian tryst worthy of a Tinto Brass-David Lynch foursome, two marvelous mammaries that act as scene stealers and hand in some understated acting of their own, a sprawling Victorian manse that straddles Art Nouveau and Contempo Creepy, enough vibrant colors to make Dario A. shoot his W., and so many twists and surprises it should be called a lemon meringue layer cake).
When first we meet Ms. Veigh, whose last name hints of the V-eight, a car known for its internal combustion, she is bent over on a cafeteria floor, picking up broken glass and licking blood from her fingers. The location is the lunch room of what looks to be an elementary school and Ms. Veigh’s curious action, not to mention her Grade A gams, are quickly noticed by a lecherous Principal. The Principal calls her away to his office where he ogles her further and informs of her dismissal.
In this instant, and her subsequent landing back on her feet at a job interview, Anna is wearing pink and she seems to embody the color with her wide smile and beaming eyes, as if she was sugar and spice incarnate. But in no time at all the earth tones are introduced after Anna is hired to be the new nanny for a pair of rich and weird little brats who live in the wealthy Countryside.
The rugrats are boarding school types whose Father is an absentee parent and a very powerful man. The only other adult guardian on the premises is Ms. Grose (Tara Fitzgerald), a British ice queen with an unreadable face and an unpredictable temperament. Ms. Grose doesn’t seem to like Ms. Veigh much, yet she, and the children’s father, are adamant about her staying on to supervise the kids.
This being a suspense-chiller, Ms. Veigh soon encounters bizarre behavior from the little tykes, is harassed by fleeting appearances from a threatening phantom and begins to suspect that the previous Nanny’s death was no mere accident. And it doesn’t seem to help matters that Anna brings a shadowy past of her own to the table.
Henry James’ book, on which Rotunno’s film is based, is one of the stalest, blandest and most bombastic ghost yarns ever written. As a student of the Arts I can, of course, see its value as part of History, but that doesn’t negate its chief allure—to provide a read that will put you to sleep or drive you crazy with pretentiously-penned run-on sentences.
This particular film adaptation, on the other hand, is anything but. A stylized, but never showy, shrewdly-paced and dexterously-photographed Expressionist noir-horror, In A Dark Place does what Hitchcock profferred as the chief purpose of a good film–It plays the audience like a piano. Or, rather, a violin, the instrument that figures into the action without much explanation.
In many ways it is a film as much about art as it is an invention of it. Anna implements Art Therapy as a means of feeling out her two young wards while providing them an optional catharsis. The results yield as many questions as they do answers and the once-molested Anna commences suspecting the children of either being sinister themselves or suffering abuse from a sinister figure similar to her own.
Like this year’s above-average human trafficking thriller and fellow adaptation And Soon The Darkness, In A Dark Place makes optimum use of its locations, using a soft lens on snow and quilted beanie to off-set the atmospheric iniquity of a frozen lake and cantankerous dead brush. It is a lens (thanks to D.P. Jean-Francois Hensgens) with a warmth for human texture and a detached fearfulness of interior and exterior space worthy of John Alcott and Roy Walker (The Shining).
And speaking of piano, Adam Pendse (scoring for the first time) gives us such incessant and eclectic sounds that we can’t help but feel like a jittery fly on the wall of this vast home of seclusion.
The snow falls as if in a holding pattern, in shock, as gelid as the lake beyond the woods. And it is as sad and beautiful as Rotunno’s film is as a whole. As alluded to before, ‘Dark Place’ is a picture with all the giallo juice, minus the unnecessary gore, a pic where nudity and sex, although sizzling hot, are handled with class and care, with the sensual being cut short to match the disquiet and fragmentation of the root of Anna Veigh’s experience.
Leelee Sobieski’s performance should go down in the annals of Horror History alongside Joan Crawford in Straight-Jacket, Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist, Barbara Steele in Castle of Blood and Brigitte Lahaie in La Nuit Des Traquees (or Night of the Hunted). Sadly, I doubt, given pic’s under-the-radar DVD release, that it will qualify to be celebrated alongside even something as modern and memorable as Lauren German’s turn in Hostel: Part II.
Nevertheless Sobieski and Fitzgerald own this ghastly gospel. It is seldom enough for two strong women to share the majority of a film’s running time (without the movie being a rom-com), but it is rarer still for those women to exude multidimensional personas, sentience, strength and resolve, even in scenes of vulnerability.
In A Dark Place is the first directorial endeavor of Mr. Rotunno, whose reputation is as the producer of at least 17 films (including Vinyan director Fabrice Du Welz’s awesome Calvaire: The Ordeal, starring previously-mentioned Brigitte Lahaie). After seeing this flick I will follow this man’s camera into the depths of any sort of cinematic Hell. Alas it is unlikely he will direct again, given that In A Dark Place was helmed in 2005 and distributed in 2006. Here’s hoping that I’m wrong.
Finally it is important to acknowledge the infrequent anomaly that In A Dark Place is—a picture which never falls prey to the trappings of the hackneyed ghost theme, instead opting to unsettle and excite by way of rationing out elaborate exposition, extolling intricate performances and deftly manufacturing uncanny atmosphere by virtue of gorgeous art direction and ace cinematography. As Ms. Grose says to Ms. Veigh midway through, “Don’t go yet.”
Four cleavers for Leelee’s tee-tees, four cleavers for hellish housing, three cleavers for genuine mystery and one cleaver for inspired ambiguity.
In A Dark Place can be streamed on Amazon Prime or stream it for free with ads on Popcornflix or VUDU Free.