The Dark Red is indicative of my favorite quality of indie directors, a willingness to explore fairly standard genre premises in unique ways. Premises that on their own are easily recognizable, but when combined present a unique experience. Though, whether the uniqueness of that experience justifies your time is, of course, another matter...
...Directed and Co-written by Dan Bush (The Signal), The Dark Red is a somber horror tale of mental illness and revenge. Sybil Warren’s (April Billingsley) traumatic past has caught up with her, as she has been confined to a psychiatric hospital. After insisting that an illusive cult took her child, Sybil’s doctor, Dr. Deluce (Kelsey Scott), attempts to convince her that these events, and her child, are figments of her schizophrenia.
But a Mother’s bond with her child isn’t something that is easily forgotten.
The first half of the film is broken up into interview sessions with Dr. Deluce, who attempts to determine whether Sybil is stable enough to be released. These interviews explore a profoundly traumatic past and call into question our protagonist’s reliability as a narrator. Something that the audience is left to interpret themselves.
The film smartly navigates its handling of mental illness and deciphering which parts of Sybil’s memory are indicative of her reality. This is arguably the most engaging and unique element of the film’s narrative. The viewer can’t help but dance between believing and refuting this traumatized character’s recollection of events, especially once the film’s supernatural elements are introduced.
Sybil believes she was abducted by the cult who wanted to exploit her extraordinary powers, caused by a mutation in her blood. As her explanation of events and her abilities becomes more fantastical, her sanity is further called into question. Billingsley’s portrayal as a traumatized, but dedicated to her perceived reality survivor is equal parts heartbreaking and cathartic. And whether or not the viewer believes her perceived reality, they come to care for her.
Further adding emotional weight to scenes is Bush’s smart editing as well as a somber score from composer Ben Lovett. Transitioning between interviews and dramatizations of Sybil’s memory vs. Dr. Deluce’s explanation for events truly kept me guessing, which was her actual reality?
Without question, Sybil’s drive and journey for the truth is what kept me engaged throughout. Deciphering her reality, or paranoid delusions gives the film an X-Files esque conspiracy mystery that approaches a familiar premise in a refreshingly unique way.
Bush and co-writer Conal Byrne’s unique presentation of a familiar premise becomes especially important the more the film’s budget begins to constrain its more exciting ideas.
We simply don’t explore Sybil’s powers to the extent we should. Her powers are mostly displayed through quick flashes of red, when connecting with her unborn child, or brief moments of mind control she unleashes on others. The extent to which she uses her powers is limited, and I couldn’t help but want more instances displaying them. These brief glimpses of her abilities fit within the small scale of the film’s narrative, but more examples of smartly utilizing them would have been appreciated.
This ultimately results in the film’s supernatural elements being intriguing but not explored to the depth that would make it even more memorable.
Again, this is where Billingsley’s exceptional lead performance carries some of the burden of the film’s shortcomings. Shortcomings that extend to the film’s somewhat unevenly constructed second act.
The second act kicks off with a sudden genre shift, which is hard to describe as anything but jarring—switching gears from X-Files esque horror sci-fi, in favor of a Punisher esque vigilantism. But if instead of an arsenal of guns, the Punisher had psychic powers. In theory, I like the idea of Sybil taking the chance to get revenge on those who she believes have wronged her. Yet the film’s speedy resolution is a tad too sudden to feel completely satisfying for her character’s arc.
Had The Dark Red not featured a tremendous lead performance from April Billingsley, I’m doubtful that I would have been nearly as invested as I was. While I do appreciate the unique angle with which Bush & Byrne explore their cultist horror premise, their exploration never goes quite far enough.
See The Dark Red when it releases in limited theaters and on digital March 6th from Dark Sky Films.
By Jay Krieger