The Dark Red


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Dark Red
"The Dark Red manages impressive stylistic shifts between the calm environment of the therapy room and the giddy atmosphere of the flashbacks." | Photo: Courtesy of FrightFest

Even in a typical, healthy person, the trauma of stillbirth can trigger the development of severe psychiatric symptoms including delusions, panic attacks and feelings of persecution. When a patient presents like this and also has a history of mental health problems, most doctors won't hesitate to diagnose psychiatric illness and schedule appropriate treatment. That the patient in this case is convinced her baby is still out there somewhere doesn't seem especially remarkable. But what if it's true?

Sybil (April Billingsley) has an elaborate story to tell. The crux of it is that she believes she delivered a healthy baby who was stolen from her by a cult before the presiding obstetrician, who was in on it, had her transferred to the psychiatric unit. She recounts the rest in painstaking detail to Dr. DeLuce (Kelsey Scott), who promises to help her. Of course, the help the doctor has in mind is rather different from what Sybil has in mind. She listens patiently, sympathetically, but she's clearly ticking off a list of familiar red flags. Thinks people conspired against her - check. Believes she's special - check. Absolutely no evidence to back up any of her claims - check.

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Writer/director Dan Bush established his horror credentials back in 2007 with his contribution to The Signal, a film which played around with points of view, and here he takes that further, allowing most of the film to unroll as a two-hander between two people each of whom is fixed in her beliefs. Flashbacks seem to support some of what Sybil is saying, but could they be imagined or misinterpreted? The only clue we have is the brief prologue in which a police officer finds a woman dead in a trailer marked with occult symbols, and a little girl hiding in a box. If that little girl was Sybil, could she have been watched all this time by people waiting for her to grow up? Or could she have internalised her trauma in a way that encouraged occult-themed fantasies?

Although most viewers (perhaps especially those who watched this at Frightfest) will start with the assumption that Sybil's story is true because otherwise there'd be no reason to make a film about her, Bush succeeds remarkably well at keeping us guessing, and even after the film is over, there are lingering uncertainties. Having the doctor be female changes the familiar story of a desperate heroine being disbelieved by men. Further, Bush communicates very effectively the horror implicit in delusional illness and in losing a child. The fact that the doctor has seen this sort of thing before is itself a reminder that awful suffering is very much a part of the mundane world.

Ably played by the two leads, with Scott particularly impressive in the quieter role, The Dark Red manages impressive stylistic shifts between the calm environment of the therapy room and the giddy atmosphere of the flashbacks, Victoria K Warren's cinematography giving the latter something of the atmosphere of Seventies genre films, an approach which itself suggests they could be inventions influenced by watching popular entertainment. The risk here is that beyond this central uncertainty the film doesn't have much going on, but Bush makes up for this with an action-packed ending which ramps up the gore and explodes into a different kind of horror.

Though it's necessarily slow early on and doesn't always succeed in sustaining the tension, The Dark Red is a smart little film with a more sophisticated understanding of its subject matter and more to say than past stories of this sort might lead you to expect.

Reviewed on: 24 Aug 2019
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A young woman is committed to a psychiatric hospital and claims her newborn was stolen by a dark cult.

Director: Dan Bush

Writer: Dan Bush, Conal Byrne

Starring: April Billingsley, Conal Byrne, Bernard Setaro Clark, Jill Jane Clements

Year: 2018

Runtime: 101 minutes

Country: US


Frightfest 2019

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