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ghoul in the name of love

The Dark (15)

Director: Justin P. Lange

Screenplay: Justin P. Lange

Starring: Nadia AlexanderToby NicholsKarl Markovics

Review: David Stephens

Coming-of-age dramas are an integral part of genre cinema. It could be the unorthodox emergence of adulthood in teenage girls, as represented in “Ginger Snaps”, “Teeth”, or “Carrie”. Or it could be puberty-pushing kids fighting against a supernatural enemy in the likes of “IT”, “Silver Bullet”, or “The Monster Squad”. In that vein, “The Dark” (not to be confused with the umpteen other movies and shows with the same name) is a new film which is written and directed by first-timer Justin P. Lange, along with Klemens Hufnagl as co-director. It’s another take on that aforementioned sub-genre, which combines the pervasive issues that are sadly experienced by some youngsters, along with a hefty dose of the macabre, producing a sometimes heart-breaking look at the evil that men do. It opened to good feedback on the festival circuit, showing at events like the Tribeca Film Festival and London Frightfest. It’s now due to be released on 22nd October on DVD and home media as part of the “Frightfest Presents” label. So YGROY ditches that flashlight and heads towards Devil’s Den for a preview…

It starts with a shot of a deserted road deep in the US backwoods, and car speeding along it. The twitchy middle-aged driver, subsequently revealed to be a guy called Josef (Karl Markovics), pulls into a small gas-station to ask directions. The smirking owner thinks he is just another dark tourist looking for an area called “Devil’s Den”, which is a local part of the woods known for a scary urban legend and (allegedly) some strange deaths. But of course it’s not that simple, as Josef ends up driving further into the woods and finds an “abandoned” derelict house, which leads to an unexpected outcome. The fateful encounter introduces the apparently undead Mina (a superb Nina Alexander from “The Sinner” and “Seven Seconds”) who then meets the blind and abused Alex (Toby Nichols, young Danny Rand from “Iron Fist”). As the unlikely and damaged pair form a close bond, their relationship will unfortunately result in death and bloodshed…  
The most obvious assumption you would likely make after reading the various synopses and festival round-ups of “The Dark”, was that it could be easily compared to the great “Let the Right One In” (or maybe the better-than-expected Hammer remake “Let Me In”). However “Dark” feels like an altogether different beast with more disturbing ingredients in the narrative mix than you might think. As nice as it would be to experience the film with as little knowledge as possible, there can’t be many prospective viewers that aren’t aware that Mina is an undead ghoul with a penchant for flesh-eating. But you shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that this is a variant of the zombie genre. By definition, Mina is no mindless gut-cruncher and her appearance isn’t the result of a virus or radiation from a space-probe (thanks to “Night of the Living Dead”). The themes contained within the plot are appropriately darker than your average low-budget flesh-eater as well.

The systematic and inexcusable abuse of young innocents (and the effect it subsequently has on them), is the overriding source of the most disturbing developments in the plot. Although never explained, the oft-used title can’t be linked to a lack of sunshine (very little of the film takes place at night), but more to the darkness present in humanity. The authority figures prevalent in the lives of Mina and Alex are unforgivable scumbags and have inadvertently transformed them, in both the physical and mental sense. This can be seen most clearly in Mina’s “origin”, a perfectly crafted tale told in flashback that holds an admirable amount of ambiguity when it comes to the supernatural. Although she looks like a cross between Regan MacNeil and a Deadite, she is as much a victim as she is a “monster”. At one point she hides timidly in a closet from a character, in a complete reversal of the normal horror movie tropes. Alex too has been transformed by his experience, with a variation on “Stockholm Syndrome” and a believable subservience to “the rules”. In a pivotal scene, he shows that he can be as much of a “monster” as Mina, with his experience twisting his morality. 

To its credit, the heavy themes of the plot never swamp the actual story itself, although it generally avoids things like jump-scares and in-your-face splatter. Whilst not awash with gore, there are quite a few moments that don’t stint on the bloody details, with the unabashed violence resulting in some nasty scenes. You can’t miss some of the more obvious analogies though, such as Mina apparently regaining some literal visible humanity as she empathises with Alex. But the film also scores extra marks for blurring the lines between good and evil. Whilst there are some reprehensible human beings to be seen (including one douchebag hit & run driver), decent people do get hurt (well, killed horribly actually) trying to do the right thing. It’s sometimes the result of bad and rash decisions made by the leads, which is as much a comment on the cyclic nature of abuse as anything else. The refusal to classify things as black-and-white is very well done, with the final shot mirroring the first one being indicative of the whole thing, but without being obvious or mawkish. 

Nichols does well, but it’s Alexander who is the absolute stand-out here. Combining a feral nature with a fierce intelligence, her Mina is an atypical representation of the undead. Being neither zombie nor vampire, Alexander plays her with just the right amount of viciousness and pathos. Whether she’s screaming in frustration when her privacy is invaded, or biting chunks out of people’s necks, there’s something inherently tragic about her. The actresses nails the emotions needed during the dialogue-free moments, such as where she tries to eat like a normal person, or realises that she has more in common with Alex than she ever thought. She makes for a strangely appealing ghoul, where you can kind of understand what drives her decisions, even if they’re pretty bad ones. 

Despite its heavy themes, there are one or two moments of dark (heh) humour, such as Mina’s face-off with a dog. But overall, it generally mixes in some points of hope alongside the colder moments. Never has a spoonful of dry cereal been so uplifting in a film. It’s not going to be for everyone. Some may feel that the thematic points about abuse and betrayal by adults to be somewhat heavy-handed, and the plot itself to be a little simplistic. But for a movie that starts like an arthouse backwoods slasher and manages to juxtapose so many effective moments of insight and low-key horror, it’s pretty damned accomplished for a “small” production. Don’t be fooled by some of the generic promotions and the dull title, this is a neat little genre movie with some ambition and it’s certainly worth catching. It’s an offbeat Indie that deserves to be seen, for those after something that’s not a straightforward scare-fest. Ghoul-ish maybe, but its heart is definitely in the right place… even if that’s sometimes outside the body. 

“The Dark” manages to juggle several themes at once (abuse, coming-of-age, etc), and still be a compelling genre experience. It’s greatly helped by a commanding-yet-understated performance from Alexander, and the ability to insert disturbing observations into the narrative without compromising the main story. The blood is there, but so is the heart. Recommended. 
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