In horror, very few things are off limits. This is the genre that uncovers humanity’s darkest secrets, and puts them right under a well-lit lens for all to see. Despite that, there are a few things which are considered “taboo”, depending on the audience, including child abuse, and child murder. Dark Sky Films’ The Dark explores both, and that’s just a taste of the sort of darkness swirling around the film…
…Written/directed by Justin P. Lange (first feature), The Dark is a unique coming of age story which follows an undead teenage girl named Mina (Nadia Alexander) who befriends a horribly abused blind boy, Alex (Toby Nichols) after his captor brings him into the woods near Mina’s home. Now with people out looking for Alex, the pair find themselves on a blood-soaked journey of self-discovery and confrontation of their past, but is there hope for them, or have their abusers damaged them for life?
As you can probably imagine, The Dark is not for the faint of the heart. Lange’s film is one that is terribly challenging, macabre, and painful. I can gladly say that I myself have never dealt with abuse on anywhere near the level that these kids have, but even so, Lange goes to great efforts to make sure the audience feels their pain in a relatable way. And he deserves applause for having the ambition to do so, because The Dark is unlike anything I have ever seen.
Imagine taking the sequence where Frankenstein meets the old blind man and manages to befriend him, simply because he cannot see, and you have the foundation for The Dark, but to a much more fucked up degree. On one side, you have Mina, a clearly undead by the look of her, abused monster full of a vicious rage, and on the other, there is Alex, a boy with awful scar tissue covering/blinding his eyes, who has been kidnapped by a bastard named Josef (Karl Markovics) and has suffered lord knows what atrocities. Each has some mystery behind their scars, which unravels throughout as we see more and more how these children have been affected by their traumas, leading to a pretty damn uncomfortable experience. It’s ambitious of Lange to tell a story like this, because it’s one thing to have some awkward romance like two kids stuck on an island together ala The Blue Lagoon, but it’s a whole different ballgame to have both leads beaten and battered beyond recognition to the point where the audience can hardly bare to look at them, with the island that they’re stuck on being an internal one of dark hatred and loneliness.
Despite the challenges, both young cast members are legit stars in their roles. Forget the hours which each must have spent in the makeup chair every day, which is difficult enough for a young actor, but for Alexander and Nichols to both be so convincing in such complicated roles is truly astounding. Alexander is practically heartbreaking as Nina, a misunderstood, rage-filled monster (like Frankenstein) who, for once, has an opportunity to be around someone who doesn’t see her that way, and struggles with the fact that she may be creating a monster of her own by leading Alex along with her murderous ways. As for Nichols, his character Alex is essentially suffering from Stockholm syndrome, bound by rules laid down by Josef, even though he’s rotting in a pit somewhere. Good riddance. Both kids are the result of a world where adults have failed them and left them in disrepair, so it’s up to each other to do the fixing. It’s an interesting dynamic, and one that often feels much more tragic than it ever does hopeful, which is the name of the game for The Dark.
Shot with a bluish-grey tone, Lange and cinematographer Klemens Hufnagl transport the audience into the cold, heartless world that hides just underneath the bullshit happiness we’ve all fabricated so we can ignore it. The Dark isn’t some cute love story between kids. This isn’t My Girl. This shit is real. And because it’s so real, Lange doesn’t bother to play the film for scares or extravagant style. Instead, The Dark is a quiet, subtle film that lures the viewer in with just how quiet it is before suddenly reminding us just how quickly life can change with a series of moments that are beyond violent and bloody. By the way, I’m just kidding about My Girl, that’s a solid flick. The Dark is an unforgiving tool prying as deep as it can into the parts of our brains that make us uncomfortable, and Lange is the surgeon carefully pricking at us, seeing what makes us tic. I’m still cringing at the implications of The Dark, and at the atrocities that are actually shown on screen. You could say that The Dark has a pretty pessimistic view of childhood, and that would be an understatement.
Unfortunately, the strength of The Dark is also its weakest element: The relationship between Mina and Alex. Individually, these two are fantastic, and their appearance and backgrounds make them fascinating characters who are deeply troubled but are seeking a way out of the pit inside of them. That’s great. But if this is a coming of age story, and it is, then it’s a shame that Mina and Alex have already gone through the darkest part of their lives. What I mean by that is, there isn’t any conflict between these two characters. The script doesn’t provide a lot for them to learn from, and moments where they get the chance are underplayed. In fact, their relationship even gets a bit repetitive at points, with Mina wanting Alex to leave and Alex wanting to stay with her. And round and round we go. Which might be okay, if the love that we’re supposed to think the two have between each other felt real, which is the one emotion that Lange’s script lacks, even though it’s the most vital. I felt less like these two are actually beginning to love each other, and more like they simply needed one another. Both kids just want someone to accept them, but rarely does it seem as if these two are actually forming an unbreakable bond, because they don’t challenge each other. Without much conflict between them that they have to overcome, there isn’t enough in the story to convince the viewer that what these two have is real, which is disappointing, to say the least.
Lange also introduces the idea that Alex’s presence may or may not be bringing Mina back to life, but it’s a concept that again is played too subtly, and would have had more of an impact if it factored more into the plot. We don’t ever get the strong sense that this change matters much to Mina. The idea is hinted at often, but as a viewer, you have to really be looking for it to see it. Still, The Dark is a beautiful though brutal film that explores an idea which is too often missed in filmmaking, which is that not everyone is beautiful on the outside as well as in. People can look past someone’s scars, physical and emotional, and find reason to love them, but as The Dark proves, it isn’t as easy as snapping your fingers and saying you’re in love. Moving past those scars is an ugly, violent process that takes a whole lot of sacrifice and willpower. But if you can stomach it, then The Dark is well worth the watch, and will be one of the most unique films you will see all year.
The Dark releases tomorrow, Jan 15th, on DVD from Dark Sky Films.
By Matt Konopka