Tribeca Film Festival: THE DARK: A New Terror Lurks In These Woods
Premiering at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, Justin P. Lange's The Dark is an ingenious reinvention of the zombie genre, bringing a new rage monster to the cinematic screen and exhibiting what anger and fear truly is. This is a film you will not soon be forgetting.
Horror films of late have begun to reach a new level of cinematic achievement. Long gone are the one dimensional slice and dice, replaced with jump scares that have deeper meaning than their predessecors. Get Out and A Quiet Place are just a couple of these such films, breaking the conventional structure of horror and enriching the fear with an invigorating freshness within the genre. The Dark from director and writer Justin P. Lange is the latest to join these ranks, its creation coming from an examination of emotion and humanity rather than just the monster.
I have always loved horror films, beginning with the “safe” Disney horrors (The Watcher in The Woods) and growing with the genre as I got older. With the Tribeca Film Festival, myself and fans of horror are treated to five selected films each year that encapsulate the growing and evolving genre. Appropriately entitled Midnight, these films are showcased each year bringing horror to the forefront, giving it a category all its own. The Dark is one of these such films this year and a solid representation of horror and the festival.
What I loved about The Dark was its embrace towards relateablity to the emotions it was trying to convey. More than likely, we have all experienced a moment in our lives where our emotions have gotten the better of us, reacting purely by what we feel rather than what we think. While we are not running around as flesh-eaters, as the film progresses we find ourselves understanding and sympathizing with Mina.
While utilizing common horror tropes, they were different and changed. Where jumps and scares could be predicted by the audience, the fear came from not knowing where it was going to come from and in what form. An ingenious reworking of the zombie genre allows for the success of this film as well, the intricate and humanized details of Mina raising the monster, as well as the film, to new levels.
This is not your typical horror film, nor is Mina your typical Zombie.
Haunting the woods of Devil’s Den surrounding her childhood home, Mina (Nadia Alexander) has made a reputation in town, scaring all those who have heard of the monster in the woods, keeping them away and ensuring her seclusion and safety. Those who do dare to enter find their fate swiftly sealed, becoming a meal for this flesh-eating monster.
While ransacking the car of her latest victim Josef (Karl Markovics), Mina stumbles on a young boy named Alex (Toby Nichols) whose blatant signs of abuse stop her from making him her second course. Yet, as she struggles with her rage, fighting off her desire to finish Alex off, she finds herself wanting to help the boy rather than harm him.
As they begin their journey through the woods to bring Alex to safety, Mina begins to discover this journey may have more far reaching consequences than just returning Alex home.
Out of the Dark
The Dark was posed for success the moment 15-minutes of its footage was screened at Cannes last year, almost immediately being purchased by XYZ Films. Honestly, after watching the film, it was no surprise – The Dark did everything right. It had all the jump scares in the right places without overdoing it. It does not skimp on the gore, utilizing it appropriately within the film. Yet, it raises itself above the crowd, imbuing the story with deep emotion and humanity, while reinventing a classic cinematic monster.
The film is evenly paced, neither horror nor story overshadowing one another, giving the audience enough time to enjoy and absorb both sides. Transitions between past and present allow the viewer to learn about Mina, perfectly incorporating and creating a deeper character for audiences to either despise or sympathize with. The story created by Lange is solid and memorable, reaching beyond the classic horror.
The makeup design team was on point and meticulous, especially with Mina, her deep set deathly eyes and battered torn skin bringing believability to her monster and circumstance. The same can be said for Alex, whose damaged eyes constantly reflect the abuse and fear he continues to endure. So much time was given to each feature within the makeup, heightening the time and detail that was given to every aspect of this film.
Nadia Alexander delivers another stellar performance and at times is unrecognizable. I love the role of the anti-heroine Alexander continues to encompass, continuing her streak by bringing Mina to life and adding to an already impressive list of performances (Blame, Seven Seconds and The Sinner). There is so much depth and commitment to her role, her performance a standout in her career thus far and throughout the festival. She is the heart and soul of this film.
Toby Nichols also delivers a solid performance, bringing fear to a new level. He brings a vulnerability to his character not only because his character is blind, but because he allows himself through his character to become exposed. Viewers will feel a connection to this character and feel for him, no just when he and his situation are introduced, but throughout the entire film.
Emotions that define you
At its core, The Dark is a story about emotions, emotions that control us and shape our lives – as well as the fate of others. Emotions are what drives us, defines us and makes us human beings. Without emotion, we would be hollow, a shell. Many horror films feed off the emotion of fear, both with its characters and with its audience. The Dark, however, goes deeper than that expanding on what the emotions it represents truely are and displaying what real fear looks like.
Mina encompasses rage. She is controlled and molded by it. It is deeply rooted, manifested into an uncontrollable hunger and brutality. She is born out of circumstance, unable to move past the birth of her rage and the core driving force of her character. She is a character born out of anger as well, thus becoming a deeper embodiment of that emotion. With Mina, deep rooted rage is all she knows.
Alex is the other end of the spectrum of emotion. Where Mina is the rage and stength, Alex is the fear. Not fear of monsters under the bed, but of the monsters that lurk in real life. His fear cripples him, freezing and shriveling him in place. His fear is compounded because he is literally in the dark, with nothing but fear to comfort him. Clearly the victim of abuse, we understand why he is so afraid and we sympathize with his anguish.
While The Dark takes a cold hard look at the control our emotions can have on us, it also takes a look at humanity within us. What separates us from animals, from monsters and men? It is what defines our species as superior and can affect the decisions we make and the lives of ourselves and others. In The Dark, not only is humanity examined but it is questioned to the core.
Can humanity ever be completely snuffed out? The Dark uses Mina as its central lab rat, the entire film attempting to answer this question. Can there truly ever be a redeemable monster? And once the horror is there, can it ever truly leave a person?
The depth of this question and flawless execution was a culmination of story and actor. The mind of writer and director Justin P. Lange is perfectly combined with the beliefs and character choices of actress Nadia Alexander. Where he has reinvented a monster with the potential of redemption, Alexander finds her choices in characters that are deserving of empathy (Read her article here on Talkhouse.com)
With these two combined, The Dark proves to be an in depth and truly eye opening examination of character – one that I know many will find that humanity is not always how we think it is.
The Innocence of a Bear
Symbolism can find its way into any film, no matter its subject matter. Sometimes in your face, while other times less recognizable, symbolism can elevate a film beyond its traditional structure, heightening the strength and impact of a story. While incorporating a variety of symbolism throughout The Dark, I was most struck with the use of a small teddy bear throughout the film.
Teddy Bear (kindly dubbed Wilson by Nadia Alexander) had a special place in The Dark. He is the last remaining humanity in Mina, a symbol that while Mina is consumed by rage, there is still a spark of humanity in her. “Wilson” the Teddy Bear is a sign of hope that Mina clings to, an innocence of her childhood she quietly longs to have back. There is a relationship for her with the bear that she can not let go of, a child-like attachment that deepens her character and creates further complexities within her as a monster.
While Mina is feasting on a victim, the bear is placed on a chair facing Mina, viewing everthing that she is doing. He is unable to stop her, as Mina is unable to stop herself. “Wilson” the teddy bear bares witness to everything that has come to pass. Noticiably, there is a change in the demeanor of the main character when the bear is no longer watching.
I truely loved this subtle but profound use of symbolism in The Dark and was astonished how one fuzzy childhood toy could encapsulate so much meaning and power in a film.
A New Age Zombie
The zombie genre has changed numerous times since its first appearance on screen. Beginning early on as slow moving, mindless horrors in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, this traditional view of zombies evolved into fast moving, apocalyptic creatures that could outrun man in 28 Days Later. They would later evolve into a virus we are all infected with only activated in death on The Walking Dead, as well as a keen and innate survivalist in World War Z, avoiding all those who were sick and weak. Yet, all of these zombies were nothing more than mindless animals – no thought, no emotion.
In recent years, zombies have begun to take a new shape, less terrifying and intelligent. CW’s iZombie and Netflix’s Santa Clarita humanized the zombie genre. No longer were you afraid as it was “mostly” possible they could live and function within normal society. Yet, where humanity seeped into the genre, it only replaced the horror.
The Dark is the first film I can say has found a way to balance both – humanity and horror within an intelligent monster. Mina is not mindless, in fact she has the ability to meticulously plan and hunt her victims – and not kindly I might add. Her mind is functional, she has not forgotten who she was and who she currently is. While her rage is her central motivation, taking the control away from her, she is not without a sliver of her own individuality. She is the combination of a classic horror monster and self aware functionality – making her actions unpredictable and creating a new version of a classic monster.
This was one of my favorite films throughout this year’s entire Tribeca Film Festival and I am so glad that I had the opportunity to see this amazing film. Once again, I have been amazed by another stand out performance by Nadia Alexander, and have become intrigued at the works of cinema that Justin P. Lange will inevitably bring to screen in the future.
The Dark Was released April 21, 2018 at the Tribeca Film Festival.
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