Welcome to Video Violence, a new column highlighting recent and upcoming home video horror releases.
True to its title, THE DARK unloads an entire film’s worth of dreariness within its first 20 minutes. A car winds through a bleak, unwelcoming countryside, stopping only when its driver, Josef (Karl Markovics), feels compelled to stop at a hole-in-the-wall convenience store to ask about directions for something called “The Devil’s Den.” The store clerk is not amused, having obviously warned plenty of other thrill-seekers away from the place. Exasperated, he goes through the routine of circling the map and giving the customary warning, just as many other bemused cinematic clerks have sent unsuspecting victims to their doom.
Only, in this story, the exchange ends with the would-be victim producing a gun and blowing the clerk’s brains out.
Obviously, nothing is what it seems in THE DARK, as we soon learn this cagey, fidgety man is no innocent victim at all. He arrives at The Devil’s Den and discovers the local lore is true: a monsterdoes lurk within these woods, ready to fend off any intruders with a well-timed hatchet to the forehead. This much is not startling; less expected, however, is that the monster is a girl, Mina (Nadia Alexander), who’s been abandoned to the woods, where’s she become something like a young, feral Jason Voorhees.
Bearing a disfigured face and an insatiable bloodlust, she figures to be the film’s savage antagonist until she makes a startling discovery of her own: Josef has not arrived alone, as a terrified young boy, Alex (Toby Nichols), cowers in the backseat of his car. His eyes are scarred, rendering him blind and compounding the panic he feels when Mina tries to free him. Doing anything without Josef’s permission obviously frightens him, and it soon becomes obvious that he’s been abducted. Cryptic mentions of a phone number and Josef’s friends send Mina into a panic herself: here’s this violent creature that suddenly feels protective of an intruder.
While I’d hesitate to say that the rest of THE DARK relents in its bleakness, it at least offers a glimmer of something unexpectedly hopeful and heartfelt. What looked to be the umpteenth riff on a “wrong turn” slasher flick slowly becomes a sensitive character study of two broken children seeking refuge after years of abuse and neglect. Alex’s plight is the most immediate and visceral: Mina must escort him to safety, a harrowing journey that finds her fending off anyone who might do harm to her new charge. Violence naturally carves a trail through the woods with them, as Mina must resort to tearing apart anyone who stumbles onto the path. Brief — but potent — gore-soaked outbursts recapture the film’s initial monster-in-the-woods potential, but THE DARK is decidedly not content to be that film.
It’s better for it. Writer/director Justin P. Lange (stretching his original short film into feature length) is much more invested in Mina’s personal, haunting journey to accepting what she’s become. Intermittent flashbacks reveal a tragic, disturbing backstory involving an neglectful mother and her abusive boyfriend. Lange still paints with an impressionistic brush here, providing only the broad strokes: a stomach-churning confrontation between Mina and the boyfriend seems to end with her death, yet she inexplicably emerges from the ground days later, now twisted into a grime and gore-splashed phoenix hellbent on vengeance. No explanation emerges beyond the suggestion breezing through the windswept woods, implying that something strange is afoot.
But, again, Lange’s primary concerns rest with Mina herself, and he leans on the tender, quietly-pitched performances from his adolescent leads to craft a subtly devastating portrait of survival and redemption. Alexander’s turn as Mina is reflective of the film’s aesthetic: it’s unassuming and almost deceptive in the way she eventually finds a moving, warm humanity buried in this character’s wounded soul. Beneath her gruesome makeup, Mina is still a frightened girl coming to terms with what she’s become, an arc that’s obviously ripe for allegorical implications. One doesn’t have to dig too deeply to see Mina as a representative for adolescent girls whose sexuality is cruelly forced upon them before they’re left to recollect whatever remains of their shattered existence.
Because of this, THE DARK is a much more interesting film than it initially lets on. Lange’s approach is a touch too elliptical and shaggy at times, resulting in an extremely slow burn, but even this feels preferable to another round of watching another assortment of vacationers falling prey to a hideous monster. Not that I’ll ever refuse that outright, of course — it’s just nice to see someone subvert these expectations and pitch this premise from the point-of-view from the monster itself. It’s less WRONG TURN and more PET SEMATARY, told through the lens of the resurrected.
Considering the way it zigs and zags far away from its starting point, it’s tempting to even consider THE DARK to be a tad playful, especially when Lange flips it on its head with the Russian nesting doll of topsy-turvy reveals early on. However, he masterfully holds the line with appropriately sullen photography, an understated score, and a tense, enveloping soundscape that rightfully pitches this intimate, brooding tale in hushed, reserved tones. THE DARK arrives with the whispered tones of a campfire tale, but never works its way up to a customary jolt; rather, it seeks a strange solace in the distant, longing pangs of hope and atonement that somehow claw through clumps of trauma and regret.
THE DARK is now available on DVD from Dark Sky Films. Special features include a trailer, plus previews of other Dark Sky releases.