The Dark

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Dark
"There's a lot packed into Justin P Lange's downbeat horror fable." | Photo: Christopher Katsarov

When Alex (Toby Nichols), the boy with scars where eyes should be, meets Mina (Nadia Alexander), he reaches up his hands to touch her face, but she stops him. Alex is afraid. Why is she here, and not the man who has been holding him captive? Will he be in trouble for interacting with her? Will she be in danger? If he could see her, he might be afraid for a different reason. Nina found her way into these woods through an experience not unlike his own, but she has been here for a very long time.

Opening with a strange vignette in which we meet a man on the run, The Dark quickly positions Mina as a monster. She's the girl with the shredded face, the shadow among the trees, moving with her knife as if it's part of herself, eating what she kills. But her room in an abandoned house is full of artwork. A teddy bear sits vigil. It hints at the mercy she will show to the boy and, perhaps, the possessiveness that will follow. She knows that they are not the same, that he has a mother who loves him, a family to which he ought to be returned. That he's still breathing.

There's a lot packed into Justin P Lange's downbeat horror fable. It's been described as a zombie film, but that seems to miss the point. Mina's violence is essentially defensive, or born out of understandable anger (with exploitative would-be heroes as well as monsters of a different sort). Her dehumanisation is as much metaphorical as physical. Flashbacks to her life with an alcoholic mother and the mother's sexually abusive boyfriend offer context. She has spent a long time living in the dark, becoming part of it. Only the boy's presence serves as a reminder that there's more to life; and as they spend time together, she gradually starts to look more alive. Yet is is her experience of darkness that enables her to understand and assuage his fear, and as they spend time together he seems tempted to follow the same path.

Played out with minimal dialogue, The Dark has an awareness of the animalistic nature of children, enhanced by the experience of trauma, that recalls David Lowery's haunting St Nick. The absence of a score and substitution of a heightened soundscape created by Hannes Plattmeier invites the audience to share that space, to be continually on the alert for opportunity or danger. Though burdened by heavy make-up, both young leads doing an excellent job of conveying the differentness that trauma leaves behind and the sense of connection forged by mutual awareness of a world most people opt never to look at. The result makes for depressing viewing but is important both for viewers who have visited that place and for others trying to understand them, and Lange's story is not without hope.

Could it be improved on? Yes. Like many a debut feature, it's much stronger on vision than structure. It would benefit from tighter editing and is a little too long for what it has to say. Nevertheless, it's a bold and imaginative effort and introduces talent worth watching.

Reviewed on: 28 Apr 2018
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Undead and hating it, young flesh-eater Mina haunts the woods surrounding her childhood home. When she befriends a physically abused boy, she must figure out why, for once, she isn’t feeling homicidal.

Festivals:

Tribeca 2018

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