An English-language Austrian movie filmed in Parry Sound, Ontario, Canada, The Dark is yet another horror allegory borrowing bits of zombie narrative. It follows on the heels of several similar 2018 releases that included Cargo and The Cured. Now after making the rounds at film festivals, The Dark hit several streaming platforms earlier in January. Justin P. Lange makes his directorial debut in what has been described as a supernatural-themed look at childhood trauma.
Abducted and blinded, a young boy is brought to a tract of woods known as the ‘The Devil’s Den’. Lost and alone, he encounters an undead girl, Mina, who has haunted the forest and wreaked havoc on trespassers for years. After Mina spares the boy’s life, the two abused and lonely souls slowly bond with one another. But their friendship is threatened when outsiders come looking for the missing boy.
The Dark is One Half of a Great Movie
For approximately 25 to 30 minutes, The Dark is a taut indie horror movie. Mixing the supernatural with some mystery and elements of a dark fairy tale, writer and director Justin P. Lange keeps you in ‘the dark’ with where his story is going. In fact, I would recommend that you not even read the movie’s official synopsis. Too much is given away and there’s something refreshing about Lange’s early storytelling. He confidently builds and sustains a quiet tension that’s bolstered by the absence of conventional story set-up. No, the narrative doesn’t twist like an M. Night Shyamalan movie. The Dark is quieter, more subtle. Instead, Lange first introduces you to the clearly suspect Josef Hofer, slowly and methodically allowing the true nature of his actions to trickle out.
…Lange eschews cheap jump scares and the use of jarring sound effects.
Where Lange further excels is with his ability to boil up the slow-burn. After some playfully dark humor in the movie’s gas station scene, Lange drops you deep in the woods. In an abandoned cabin, he films a 15-minute or so run that has you intently watching the screen, waiting for things to jump out at you. To his credit, Lange eschews cheap jump scares and the use of jarring sound effects. In fact, The Dark is an extremely introspective movie with some occasionally jarring and grounded violence.
Methodical Storytelling Gives Way to Plodding Pacing
Unfortunately, Lange can’t maintain his slow-burn pacing beyond the first act. Once the undead Mina opens her mouth and starts talking, the movie quickly shifts gears. And no, this tonal about-face doesn’t fall on Nadia Alexander’s shoulders. Both child actors – Alexander and Toby Nichols – capably carry the movie with affecting performances. Though The Dark maintains some horror elements, both the suspense and fairy tale sensibilities are seemingly dropped. Lange shifts his story to a psychological character study with grand ambitions of exploring the impact of child abuse.
…The Dark never gets under your skin emotionally in spite of some suggestive and disturbing scenes.
Clearly, The Dark wants to be a bold allegorical tale. But Lange’s lost and wounded child characters feel underwritten. There’s an emotional connectivity lacking from the movie. On a cognitive level, you’re aware that you should identify and sympathize with the young characters and their growing friendship. Nevertheless, The Dark never gets under your skin emotionally in spite of some of suggestive and disturbing scenes. Much of this problem can be attributed to the very slow pace the movie falls into in its second half. Without any sense of urgency or clear big picture, The Dark limps to its underwhelming climax.
The Dark Falls Short of Poignancy For Which It Aims
As far as directorial debuts go, Lange shows a wealth of potential with The Dark. For 30 minutes or so, Lange treats audiences to an engaging and moody indie horror effort. However, Lange’s attempt at merging supernatural and zombie elements with a more introspective examination of childhood trauma never quite gels. In all likelihood, the cumulative effect of its tough subject matter and glacial pacing in the second half makes The Dark a tough sell.