Reviewing microbudget films often leaves me rather conflicted. Generally, my preference will always be for a simple story told well. A film that takes advantage of all available resources, but stays within the boundaries of talent and finances. But there’s another part of me that loves to see filmmakers throwing caution to the wind; to push the limits as far as possible. The resulting films tend to be nearly unwatchable, but viewing them can still be thrilling. I’m passionate about ultra low-budget cinema because of the lack of restrictions, and it’s simply refreshing – if not occasionally frustrating – to see directors willing to embrace that freedom.
But I’m also aware that not everyone finds these aspirations as appealing as myself. If you’re the sort of person likely to shell out cash for a low-budget horror film, the last thing you likely want to see is experimental storytelling and amateur philosophy. These films still have to deliver the goods, and I have a responsibility to communicate when they miss the mark or flame out spectacularly.
Which brings us to Phlip Gardiner’s DARK WATCHERS – THE WOMEN IN BLACK. Its mockbuster title (the label calls it MEN IN BLACK: THE DARK WATCHERS) suggests a low-buget riff on MEN IN BLACK or THE WOMAN IN BLACK, while the trailer feels more like a derivative X-FILES inspired tribute. In reality, either of those options would likely have made for a more entertaining viewing experience, as this occasionally nightmarish mish-mash of hazy filters and sloppy effects ends up being equal parts ponderous and inspired. Most viewers are going to be left alternately rolling their eyes and reaching for the fast-forward burron, but there’s enough creepy imagery and interesting ideas to reward particularly patient viewers.
The plot is a little difficult to properly summarize. We have three roomates – Alexis, Lorna and Sammy – who start to encounter strange happenings after a possible alien encounter. Speaking with a fellow alien nut, they discover that people in the area are experiencing gaps in time, and they have footage of a local who has started to grow strange black patches on their skin. These same blotches start appearing on the three women, who also start encountering strange apparitions, and occasional visions of a man wearing a dark suit who appears to walk among the area – and the household – undetected. Eventually the three begin acting strangely, with some vanishing entirely. How does this connect with the alien encounters? And why have these three been targeted?
Take certain elements of this summary with a grain of salt. Chronology in the film is difficult to maintain, and for much of the second half I was as confused as the characters. Gardiner (who also edited and did the cinematography) keeps throwing out interesting visuals – slow motion, black & white, and a constant stream of filters – but when characters actually have to interact the dialogue tends to be forgettable, and seemingly improvised. An early scene where a UFO enthusiast shows some footage on a portable DVD player is inexcusably dull, and soon after I lost any semblance of continuity. Even worse is the sudden, entirely unsatisfactory conclusion that almost entirely out of nowhere.
But it’s not entirely a lost cause. Once Gardiner abandons the plot, he’s able to better embrace some truly creepy imagery, and his game female cast do a good job of portraying their mounting fear. A brief scene where the “man in black” hovers around the trio, unnoticed, as they move throughout the house manages to capture a wonderfully eerie tone. It also benefits from an impressive, droning soundtrack that is – unfortunately – occasionally interrupted by a few distracting and inappropriate songs that also tend to drown out the dialogue.
Despite some occasional visual inventiveness, DARK WATCHERS – THE WOMEN IN BLACK makes for an overwhelmingly frustrating viewing experience. With enough caffeine in your system there are flashes of appreciable talent, but few will be able to get past the erratic plot and leaden dialogue scenes to be able to appreciate it. Gardiner has a real eye for composition, and is an incredibly prolific director, but this is a failed experiment for all but the most patient fans of micro-budget cinema.
Four Nightmares out of Five = Not Much Fun
One Nightmare – No-Budget Perfection, Two Nightmares – Shocking Success, Three Nightmares – Shows Potential, Four Nightmares – Not Much Fun, Five Nightmares – Please Kill Me
- [NO-BUDGET NIGHTMARES] PODCAST #80: PLAGA ZOMBIE (1997) - July 25, 2016