There’s something scary out there! Put up a wall and don’t let anyone in...
...Listen to me and don’t believe your own eyes! Watching Darkness in Tenement 45 feels eerily timely for a story that takes place over fifty years ago. Writer/director/producer Nicole Groton creates a setting with no electricity, barely any food, and a quarantine which keeps everyone locked inside. Not only does the film focus on an airborne disease which causes everyone to shelter at home, but the horror of control becomes a major theme when the abuse of power goes extremely wrong.
Outside the tenement, tensions grow between the USSR and the USA as the Soviets continue mysterious testing. The film starts with recordings of Harry Truman playing over sepia-toned old photos and footage of war scenes and massive explosions. Truman claims he wants to speak candidly because he wants to prevent a third World War. Stalin admits to biological weapons and Ike admits concerns. News clippings announce major cities will become targets and New York City plans to evacuate as biological threats linger. However, hundreds refuse or do not have the capability to leave the now mostly deserted NYC. The residents of tenement 45 are left to fend for themselves and hopefully survive.
Set in a dingy boarded up tenement, we see a mix of characters who all live together in a tensely atmospheric setting. The adults work to take care of the children, inventory their decreasing food supplies, and collect cockroaches as a last resort. The tenement’s interior is dark and dusty, windows and doors remain boarded. The outside world, meanwhile, becomes associated with bright rays of sunshine which cut into the house’s depressing interior. The residents fear the sight of the rays; natural light is synonymous with the unnamed disease. Anything outside the house means death, so a decision to leave the tenement is treated as a suicide mission.
Aunt Martha (Casey Kramer) heads the household with the help of Felix (David Labiosa). The landlord Horen (Anthony Marciona) fears the “commies might have dropped it,” but when they run out of supplies, the adults of the tenement hold a vote to see who will go into the “biological crap” to seek food. Felix volunteers himself and everyone but Horen gets on board. Before he goes, Felix speaks man-to-man with his young son Tomás (Nicolas Aleksandr Bolton). With a household of mostly women, the departing father stresses he needs Tomás to protect and take care of everyone. There is virtually no privacy in the house, however, so the women create awkward situations for the maturing boy. Tomás’ age and the constant presence of female bodies means the young boy would rather hide in the closet and “take care” of himself. The world outside seems to have stopped, but the children still grow and develop, albeit with significant limitations.
Felix may have established himself as the brains of the home, but Joanna (Nicole Tompkins, Antrum) is the eyes. She furtively observes the adults and exists as a go-between for the grown-ups and the six kids as she passes info to the younger members of the home. Joanna moved in with her Aunt Martha around the start of the quarantine because she “got the darkness,” an unexplained condition which requires the other children to give her space. Her illness means the young woman occasionally needs a moment to regain her senses. The darkness appears to be aggressive nightmares where Joanna either gets glimpses into her past or some kind of warning from her faceless mother. The dream sequences allow the viewer to take a break from the claustrophobic shadows of the tenement, but do not offer the girl any comfort.
The dreams become more violent as the story progresses, while elsewhere in the house the smallest child, Rhonda (Emmy Greene), continues coughing. As her older brother Walter (Keyon Bowman) attempts to steal supplies for his ill sister, Horen reveals that even though he owns the building, Martha controls everything and made the decision to board up the house, despite Heron’s protests that the wood may not prevent a virus from getting in. Horen plays a loving father figure to the kids, but the three remaining adults continue to dismiss him. A power struggle begins between the opposing figures as Martha uses fear and manipulation to turn all the adults against each other while Horen gives out words of advice, hugs, and praise to earn the trust of the children.
With Felix gone, Martha takes over completely and grows increasingly harsher in her behavior towards the children. She insults her niece in front of everyone and even resorts to name calling the other adults if anyone speaks of the outside or shows Joanna respect. Martha even claims that for the protection of the children she must install locks on the outside of their bedroom doors. The older generation refuse to listen to the younger members of the house or even each other. Martha’s word is law, and the adults become little more than voiceless puppets for her dictating ways. The behavior of the self-appointed leader of the tenement also has negative effects on the development of the children. They only have Martha for a female role model, so Tomás’ sisters seem to take on some of her qualities; they order Tomás around and refuse to allow him even a moment of privacy. As Joanna grows more confident with her knowledge, she tries taking a stand against her overbearing and power-hungry aunt, with deadly consequences.
Tenement focuses on a life filled with limitations where any deviance from the restrictions could result in a fatal sickness. The power conflict arises amidst the struggle for survival, and the characters must decide who to follow and what to believe. The clashing characters played by Kramer and Tompkins create a tense environment as both figures develop as leaders fighting for dominance of the tenants’ lives. Tompkins simultaneously plays sweet and mysterious, while Kramer embodies every type of gaslighting abuser. Everyone must blindly agree with Martha and anyone who suggests otherwise is labeled as stupid or straight out dismissed and ignored. The initial power struggle between Martha and Joanna developed in Groton’s mind in 2012, but the movie pulls a lot of influence from the 2016 election. I’m not saying Martha is based off someone specifically, but the initials of the film, DT 45, seem a bit telling.
Darkness in Tenement 45 comes to VOD from Wood Entertainment November 3rd.
By Amylou Ahava