[THS Review] The Dark
Queer people tend to migrate to horror movies. Of course, there’s many reasons why. But one of the strongest reasons that has resonated with me is that we are constantly othered. Historically, we’ve been pushed into the dark corners, whispered about, feared and reviled. Much in the same way the villains and, to some degree, the protagonists are. The movies that got my attention growing up were always about the outsiders or the monsters with a heart, like in Frankenstein.
It's also been said that gay people get to (or are sometimes forced to) choose their family. Our found families protect us, love us and understand us. Most importantly, they don’t judge. So even when a movie isn't specifically queer, we will sometimes feel drawn to the story as if it were. Which brings me to The Dark. A moving and pitch black story about abuse and kidnapping and sexual assault that will remind many of Let the Right One In, The Dark touches on the idea of a found family and otherness in profound and disturbing ways.
It opens with a man named Josef (Karl Markovics) who is on the run from the authorities and is looking for a place to hide in a place called The Devil's Den. He stops to get gas and his picture shows up on TV at the worst possible time, resulting in the gas station clerk’s death. When he finally reaches Devil's Den, he finds a long abandoned house. Exploring it, he discovers a room that once belonged to a kid, with paintings coverings the walls and desk. His exploration is cut short by the appearance of someone in a hooded coat swinging an axe at him. The hooded figure belongs to Mina (Nadia Alexander), a gruesomely disfigured and dead teenaged girl, whose face is evocative of a traditional zombie.
After giving Josef a chop to the head, she discovers what he has been carting around: a teenage boy named Alex (Toby Nichols) who has been blinded in a horrifying way. He’s gripped by Stockholm syndrome and is afraid to leave the car, lest he upsets Josef. Mina is annoyed by his presence and the attention it brings to her little home in the woods. But he’s absolutely traumatized and unable to fend for himself. He’s been severely mentally and physically abused. She has her own horrific past. And together, they take the faltering first steps toward a tender relationship.
While Mina’s past is explored a bit through flashbacks, it’s never explicitly stated what she is. I’m sure most people would call her a zombie, even though she has full use of her mental and physical facilities. But her behavior reminds me of the traditional concept of a revenant, a creature born from a violent death who prowls the world for revenge and a deep-seated hatred of mankind. Think a more dead version of Leo DiCaprio from the titular movie. But, as we know, revenge can consume us, as it has poor Mina. She’s become a thing of local legend; a creature that haunts Devil’s Den. And she seems to wryly embrace it, wallowing in her grief and trauma. It’s only Alex’s appearance that upsets her normal routine and singular focus and forces her to think about something other than her all-consuming hatred.
One complaint I have about the movie is that we don’t get much about Alex. Writer/Director Justin P. Lange thankfully doesn’t spend a whole lot time on whatever atrocities had been committed on Alex; his scars tell us enough. And I’m incredibly glad we didn’t get flashbacks to the trauma he’s faced like we unfortunately do with Mina, but he feels more like a plot point; a device to further Mina’s development, rather than a full-fledged character. That said, Toby Nichols acts the hell out of his limited role, bring true pathos and pain to his character. When he is afraid of displeasing the deceased Josef, you can feel the panic in his actions and voice.
The story also falters a bit, in establishing and growing their relationship. Their friendship begins rocky, as Mina isn’t used to being around people and is, you know, dead. But because a lot of attention is brought to her backstory, it feels like we’re yanked from her annoyance with being saddled with Alex to a strong affection the story necessitates. Sure, there are little things along the way that hint towards some idea of redemption, but it feels like a quick transition towards the end.
If you can't tell, The Dark is befitting its name. It's full of damaged people who've been dealt such a tragic hand. They end up relying on each other and form their own sort of family. These are two broken individuals who find each other just when they need it the most. And watching their tentative steps back from the brink towards humanity was both moving and captivating. A couple moments hit me hard. And for a film so deeply entrenched in sadness and darkness, it can surprisingly be full of light in moments. I really dug this one, though I can understand how it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
Hidden under the incredibly somber and disturbing story, a hopeful heart beats that posits that maybe we can overcome the shit we've had to deal with. Even if it's something so terrible that we think we are doomed. I teared up a couple times during this film, as its message hit me hard.
This was such a surprise. I went in with little expectation, but The Dark quickly became one of my favorites of the festival. Luckily, as you’re reading this, it should be out digitally. For those looking for a dark story reminiscent of Let the Right One In, it comes recommended.