Director: Justin P. Lange
Cast: Nadia Alexander, Toby Nichols, Karl Markovics
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Writer-director Justin P. Lange’s debut feature, The Dark, opens with an extended sequence of a wanted criminal on the run. Played by Austrian actor Karl Markovics (The Counterfeiters), the man, Josef, has a fatal encounter with a testy gas station clerk before heading to a woodland area to hide out; in the back of his car is an unseen figure and presumed kidnap victim to whom he mutters some instructions. Where the man arrives is a place cursed by some sort of regular threat, as briefly laid out by the deceased clerk, and, sure enough, Josef is pursued by a cloaked figure through an abandoned property and out among the trees. Nearly 20 minutes long, this tense opening stretch would work well as an isolated short film in its own right (Lange’s earlier short of the same name that this expands from encompasses more of the story that follows in the rest of the full feature).
The sequence is deceptive in a few ways, particularly regarding story and tone. It’s not really a spoiler to say that Josef is not the main focus after this sequence ends, with the rest of the film focusing on the relationship between both his attacker and the kidnapped boy in the back of his car. The latter is a blind teenage boy, Alex (Toby Nichols), while the former, Mina (Nadia Alexander), is an undead teenage girl who hunts and eats anyone who comes by her woodland childhood home. Both have been victims of horrific abuse; he has burn wounds covering his eyes, while her tragic background is loosely detailed via a series of enigmatic flashbacks. For reasons not entirely clear to herself at first, Mina lets Alex live, instead of killing him – an action that throws her existence and worldview into upheaval. The hunter becomes protector, as outside forces come looking for the missing boy and his kidnapper.
Although there are bursts of graphic gore, The Dark is a horror film less concerned with a body count and more with examining how victims of trauma can bond to heal in some way. It plays out with minimal dialogue, almost nothing in the way of a traditional score, and with some occasionally searing images from DP Klemens Hufnagl, who is also credited as co-director. Some isolated moments work very well, but the overall effect is lacking. The perpetually solemn mood – including near-glacial pacing, at times, for a 94-minute film – and flirtations with very sensitive matters concerning childhood sexual abuse never really jive with both the gambit of having Mina be a zombie and the need to throw in some murder victim fodder every so often. Although The Dark’s unique premise sets it apart in the undead horror marketplace, the film’s vision could have used some tightening to pull off its intended pathos without trivialising it.