For horror fans up and down the UK, the highlight of the calendar is Frightfest and since its first-ever event back in 2000, it has gone down as one of our best-known film festivals, with a reputation that extends beyond our tiny little island and deep into the American heartland. For their 2018 festival, they are presenting a selection of titles under the banner “the best of the fest on the small screen”. Movies that include The Dark, Secret Santa (the only one which we won’t be covering this week), Lifechanger, Boar, Pimped, and, funnily enough, Fright Fest.
Screened today on both the Arrow Video Screen and the Horror Channel’s Screen is the Dark from debuting director Justin P. Lange.
Every town has their ghost story, my specific corner of the North has many a ‘Grey Lady’, those local legends are what the Dark and director Lange concern themselves with. As the movie opens, Josef (Karl Markovics), is a man on the run from the law, after killing a local shop-keeper he heads into the nearby forest to an area called the Devil’s Den – a place that has legends of a mysterious monster that eviscerates all who enter. Naturally, there is only one fate for Josef. As this folkloric monster eats its prize it heads to his vacant car only to find a young boy with horrifically scarred eyes in Alex (Toby Nichols). It’s then that we realise that this mythic monster isn’t a demon but a young girl with a horrifically disfigured face and clawed fingers called Mina (Nadia Alexander). What follows is a psychological coming of age drama that peeks at the state of mind of victims of horrific abuse and the idea that monsters aren’t the things that live deep in the woods but things made by man. Lange’s movie is more drama with horror trimmings than outright horror, so how it plays with a festival audience remains only to be seen.
While it is a drama about two damaged kids escaping their voids, there are also explicit suggestions that there is something primeval living in these woods – an idea that works brilliantly thanks to the way the dank forest has been presented by cinematographer (and co-director) Klemens Hufnagl. The movie makes full use of the dark and scores it with unearthly tones; there is also Mina’s appearance, they are more than scars. Those sounds and the pictures on Mina’s old room make that a startling truth. The movie is allegorical and I’ll be honest, presenting horror as a subtext bothers me, they do that here but they also provide something real. Whether that is the unknown hidden away in the forest, or the cannibalism that we see Mina engage in, or the many murders she commits – the dark is not a horror movie as a concept. All this is brought to life with satisfyingly earthiness, sure the budget is low, but the grime and the dirt assure that you never question or think “it’s the best they could do with the money they had”, in that, credit has to go to production designer Danielle Sahota & Costume Designer Hanna Puley.
The Dark’s presentation as a horror movie is impressively staged and it’s use of location while trite (if broken down to a checklist) becomes more wholesome because of the dramatic implications of each stage. Of course, that wouldn’t mean much if the two kids didn’t pull their weight to make these dramatic ideas more than just hints and suggestions. And credit where it is due, even at this early stage it is obvious that Justin P. Lange has a talent for directing kids. Nadia Alexander is at first feral but scene by scene she becomes more and more human by shades and degrees, even though she still kills you can see her struggle with the conflict between her humanity and the monster. Toby Nichols too, the severity with which his character has been tortured and abused has made him a shell of a person – the scene where he realises who was on the other end of the phone has real dramatic weight. If anything annoys me about the Dark, it’s that people will look at its generic conventions and tropes and overlook the great film that hides within. This, a far from a rare combo that features cannibalism, slasher kills and talks of abuse, doesn’t sound like much. But to think like that would be to overlook a rich movie with two endlessly impressive central performances that intertwine world building with characters development turning a potential cliche ridden low-budget trudge into one of my dark horses for the horror movie of the year.