I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for simplicity. Strand the bare minimum of characters in a single, isolated location and torment them with a never-fully-glimpsed monster, and you’ll have my full attention for the next hundred minutes. I enjoy the challenge of skeletal storytelling, of crafting a compelling narrative using the least possible amount of parts. It’s like the challenge of putting up Ikea furniture while keeping a bunch of spare hürgenflürga and veurüglømürgs. Sure, there’s a chance you’ll end up collapsed under a pile of jøtünglürms, but there’s also the chance you’ll make magic.
This kind of storytelling lends itself to shoestring budgets. When the makers of Saw realized they had five grand to make a movie, they shrugged and were like, “Okay, I guess this is going to be about two people in a room.” So as much as that series is now synonymous with the ugliness of torture porn and the lengths to which a studio will go to wring blood from a stone, I respect the fiendish inventiveness that brought the series into creation. Two guys wanted to make a movie and they worked with what they had. And they went on to do some pretty great stuff.
Because these kinds of stories are often told by outsiders with no money, I tend to be a little easier on them. Compare my Yakmala reviews of indie flicks to those with Hollywood juggernauts behind them. For the former, I like to find something to praise, even if I’m reveling in their cheapness. For the latter, I’m coming up with the most brutal slams I can on a Monday morning. Comedy is about punching up, after all. Someone who is able to craft even the most basic of stories out of the amount of money that would buy one epipen, well, they have my respect.
This week’s movie, the 2014 Irish import From the Dark looks like it is roundly hated. Rocking a 4.8 on the IMDB and one of the most brutal one star reviews this side of, well, my hatchet job on Fantastic Four, this is the poor kid on the playground everyone picks on because they haven’t learned to be decent people yet. I kind of get where the vitriol is coming from. This is far from a perfect movie. But for what it is, it’s a startlingly effective diversion, and worth the time of any horror fan looking for an unjustly reviled film to champion.
As appropriate for a movie like this one, the cast list is a whopping four people long. Our everypeople heroes are Mark and Sarah, an Irish couple driving through the countryside on a vacation (they’d call it a holiday, in blatant defiance to what that word means), who come upon an isolated farmhouse where something awful is happening. We get a quick window to that in a cold open, making this film structured almost like an episode of X-Files. A lone farmer, working into the night, unearths something strange on his property. That thing attacks and apparently wounds the farmer severely. Our heroes discover the farmer in the aftermath of the attack.
The monster is never explained and never seen in anything approaching light — for good reason. This leaves the audience up to determine precisely what it is, as well as allowing the imagination to fill in the holes in makeup design that a shoestring budget will necessarily leave. In any rate, the monster transforms its victims into raging killers who share the beast’s own allergy to bright light. Light will drive the monster and its victims away, or enough of it will wound or even kill. For Sarah, who rapidly turns into the sole hero when Mark is first wounded and then transformed, she is forced to use whatever she can find to produce light. In one of the film’s better themes, she has to resort to increasingly primitive methods: starting with the light on her smartphone, then to an old electric desk lamp, then finally to open flame.
As appropriate for an action survivor like Sarah, she’s put through the wringer, and has to take actions she never thought were possible only a day before. The Sarah Connor arc in the first Terminator, though appropriate for our modern age, she is never quite as helpless as Linda Hamilton’s character is in the beginning of that movie. Sarah is outmatched from the first moment, and quickly outnumbered. Mark is barely any help even before his attack, which is the whole point. Because here’s the interesting part about From the Dark: it’s all about marriage.
What feels like a post-Tarantino bantering session in the car at the beginning actually establishes the entire struggle of Sarah’s character. Mark casually mentions that he never wants to get married, and from Sarah’s pregnant pauses and pointed tone, it’s pretty obvious that this is news to her. Sarah clearly sees this relationship, and maybe this particular vacation, as a test drive for a future husband, and is only just now getting the news that he’s not that into her. Appropriate then, that she begins the film wearing white.
Tracking the state of her outfit through the movie is a window not just to how dire her straits, but where she is, at least symbolically, on the subject of commitment. In the beginning, this stuff is brand new, or she has some amazing detergent. By the midpoint, it’s getting soiled, looking more gray than anything. By the end, it’s the brownish tan of a desert military uniform. To really hammer the symbolism home, she’s later wounded — by Mark — in her finger and severs it to avoid being infected. The finger in question? Her ring finger.
In the beginning of the film, Mark was a fine partner, revealing his true character only in an offhanded comment. But by this point, he has been transformed into a raging abuser. She’s not just rejecting him, or marriage, but symbolically severing the possibility of a relationship with him or any other. She doesn’t want to be “infected” with the rage that’s poisoning him. And what’s the one thing that can stop the monster her symbolic husband has become? Light, i.e. attention, visibility, and truth.
From the Dark isn’t a perfect film. The middle sags a bit and not every one of the scares land. But it was created on a wing and a prayer and features enough depth of writing to elevate it above many of its genre-mates. Ignore the crappy reviews. See it for yourself.