Gothic Mystery 'Dominique' Indulges in Mood

Jean Simmons as Dominique Ballard in Dominique (1979) (IMDB)

Michael Anderson's Dominique hones in on an atmosphere richly dripping with nouveau gothic dread.

Michael Anderson

Vinegar Syndrome

26 March 2019 (US)


An innocuous pit stop for the cast and crew before they'd move on to higher profile projects, Dominique came and went in 1979 with little fanfare. It was the last of the gothic mysteries that cluttered up the 1970s, particularly the decade's first half; a subgenre that died a quiet and unspectacular death. If anything marks Dominique from the rest of the films of its ilk, it's the obvious attention to the visual detail which borrows heavily and shamelessly from the Italian giallos (a genre that was also on its last legs at that point).

Filmmaker Michael Anderson, whose biggest claim to fame was helming Around the World in 80 Days, a picture that would garner him an Oscar nomination, employs some fairly nifty gimmicks to give Dominique some elegance and flair. Often filmed in bold colours (burning magentas and radioactive greens), this murder-mystery/ghost story relies mainly on mood and atmosphere to carry a rather lightweight narrative about double-crossing relatives and a duplicitous marriage.

Dominique (played by two-time Oscar-nominee Jean Simmons) is an heiress and wife who lives with her curmudgeon husband David (Cliff Robertson, yet another actor who got good in Oscar's graces). Dominique is a middle-aged woman who has suffered a previous injury and is plagued with anxieties about her sanity. She hears and sees things that are apparently not real. That might be because she's being set up by her money-hankering husband, who's designed an elaborate hoax to drive his wife insane. His hope is that Dominique will take her life in despair and he will then be left with her millions of dollars.

A rather silly ploy that involves a hanging corpse and spooky noises eventually does the trick and soon Dominique is out of the picture. Or so David thinks. It would appear that while the corporeal Dominique has left this world, her vengeful spirit remains. And she's got a bone to pick with her not-so-better half.

Cliff Robertson as David Ballard (IMDB)

Dominique never really rises above something as a curio, a relic of its time. The low key supernatural elements in the narrative might test the patience of viewers looking for something with a little more blood and violence. But it hones in on an atmosphere richly dripping with nouveau gothic dread. Whether in the smartly minimal set pieces of work offices or the well-tuned baroque touches of an English manor, Dominique fills the spaces with a quietly alluring presentiment.

Director Anderson often borrows from the Italian horror greats, like Dario Argento and Mario Bava's lush style that emphasizes emotion through colour. Many of the horror sequences play out like scenes in Argento's 1977 Suspiria, the actors running around in panic through garishly tinted hallways, minus the cruel violence. In this way, the film lies closer to a plotline in an Agatha Christie mystery than it does a giallo. But the approach is purely of an Italian horror extraction.

This might unnerve some viewers who think they are getting the requisite gore that giallos promise and often deliver on. But one can't really expect forays into such blood-fare by an actress like Simmons, who earned her name and fame from playing roles in such films like Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948) or cavorting with the likes of Sinatra and Brando in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's gnashingly popular Guys and Dolls (1955). So director Anderson keeps the interest mounting in the pacing, carefully sectioning out the action from set-piece to set-piece.

We move from the mysteries of Dominique's death, explored in the sterile rooms of office buildings, to ghosts encountered in the conservatory of the homestead. The film barely lifts beyond the shudder of a breeze, opting to build meticulously a mood reserved for cozy mysteries. But it still has its charms, even if they are a little ham-fisted.

Jean Simmons as Dominique Ballard (IMDB)

Simmons and Robertson are game for the cloak-and-dagger runarounds, though they clearly know they are biding their time while they wait for bigger projects on the horizon. Edward and Valerie Abraham's script offers more loops than a whirligig and, though we can see the twists and turns coming, we remain engaged to the end. Dominique also features quite an impressive unmasking, to say the least.

Vinegar Syndrome offers a handsomely restored release as a Blu-ray/DVD double-disc. Past releases featured a muddy, heavily pixelated transfer, but here you can revel in the giallo-inspired colours rendered gloriously in the fresh new transfer. There are also some extra features, which include two audio interviews with actor Michael Jayston and the assistant director of the film, respectively.

Dominique won't raise the hackles of anyone looking for deep scares, but it is an absorbing suspense-drama that will at least keep you in your seat, if not the edge of it. Plus, it's nice to see a Hollywood veteran like Simmons trying her hand at something outside of what she normally does. The film's beautiful set-pieces and striking colour-scheme should make this moody, autumnal picture go down nicely enough.





Dancing in the Street: Our 25 Favorite Motown Singles

Detroit's Motown Records will forever be important as both a hit factory and an African American-owned label that achieved massive mainstream success and influence. We select our 25 favorite singles from the "Sound of Young America".


The Durutti Column's 'Vini Reilly' Is the Post-Punk's Band's Definitive Statement

Mancunian guitarist/texturalist Vini Reilly parlayed the momentum from his famous Morrissey collaboration into an essential, definitive statement for the Durutti Column.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

What Will Come? COVID-19 and the Politics of Economic Depression

The financial crash of 2008-2010 reemphasized that traumatic economic shifts drive political change, so what might we imagine — or fear — will emerge from the COVID-19 depression?


Datura4 Take Us Down the "West Coast Highway Cosmic" (premiere)

Australia's Datura4 deliver a highway anthem for a new generation with "West Coast Highway Cosmic". Take a trip without leaving the couch.


Teddy Thompson Sings About Love on 'Heartbreaker Please'

Teddy Thompson's Heartbreaker Please raises one's spirits by accepting the end as a new beginning. He's re-joining the world and out looking for love.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Little Protests Everywhere

Wherever you are, let's invite our neighbors not to look away from police violence against African Americans and others. Let's encourage them not to forget about George Floyd and so many before him.


Carey Mercer's New Band Soft Plastics Score Big with Debut '5 Dreams'

Two years after Frog Eyes dissolved, Carey Mercer is back with a new band, Soft Plastics. 5 Dreams and Mercer's surreal sense of incongruity should be welcomed with open arms and open ears.


Sondre Lerche Rewards 'Patience' with Clever and Sophisticated Indie Pop

Patience joins its predecessors, Please and Pleasure, to form a loose trilogy that stands as the finest work of Sondre Lerche's career.


Ruben Fleischer's 'Venom' Has No Bite

Ruben Fleischer's toothless antihero film, Venom is like a blockbuster from 15 years earlier: one-dimensional, loose plot, inconsistent tone, and packaged in the least-offensive, most mass appeal way possible. Sigh.


Cordelia Strube's 'Misconduct of the Heart' Palpitates with Dysfunction

Cordelia Strube's 11th novel, Misconduct of the Heart, depicts trauma survivors in a form that's compelling but difficult to digest.


Reaching For the Vibe: Sonic Boom Fears for the Planet on 'All Things Being Equal'

Sonic Boom is Peter Kember, a veteran of 1980s indie space rockers Spacemen 3, as well as Spectrum, E.A.R., and a whole bunch of other fascinating stuff. On his first solo album in 30 years, he urges us all to take our foot off the gas pedal.


Old British Films, Boring? Pshaw!

The passage of time tends to make old films more interesting, such as these seven films of the late '40s and '50s from British directors John Boulting, Carol Reed, David Lean, Anthony Kimmins, Charles Frend, Guy Hamilton, and Leslie Norman.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.