Nyctophobia is one of the most common fears to besiege mankind, as human beings are born with a natural fear of the Dark. For better or worse, our primal instincts take over when we’re left without light, and as we all know this makes for some fascinating story-telling material. In Dark, Nick Basile’s first feature-length film, Darkness is much more than a setting as it presents us with a unique look at a poor woman’s descent into madness.
Dark is set in New York during the summer of 2003, when a real-life incident led to a major power-outage across northeastern United States and even Canada. I was actually living in Toronto at the time and experienced this event in person. As a result, I can honestly say that this Joe Dante production is an accurate portrayal of the chaos that ensues when a buzzing metropolis is left powerless. Not only that, but it’s also a surprisingly heartfelt slow-burn thriller.
From its startling opening scene to the tragic finale, this film deals with raw emotion so intense that it’s easy to forget this is a low-budget picture. The story follows Whitney Able (you may know her from Monsters or All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) as Kate, a beautiful yoga instructor and ex-model dealing with a troubling past. She’s in a strained relationship with Leah, a photographer played by the lovely Alexandra Breckenridge. Leah is travelling out of town when the blackout hits, and Kate is left alone to deal with her inner demons. Struggling to maintain her sanity, she finds that her mind may soon end up just as chaotic as the city outside.
The strong script, supported by Nick’s wonderful direction and some great editing (specifically the best use of jump cuts I’ve seen in a while) make this film flow much faster than it would otherwise, not to mention a subtle score filled with unsettling ambience tracks. Whitney Able’s amazing performance and some decent secondary characters turn Dark into a gripping character study. Though advertised as a suspenseful horror movie, and indeed containing some horror elements, this isn’t so much a scary movie as it is a poignant look inside the mind of a damaged young woman.
However, there are a few issues holding back this otherwise great movie. For example, if you don’t know what you’re getting into, there’s a chance you won’t be prepared for some of the more drawn out scenes depicting Kate’s mundane life. Though these moments may seem like filler at first, it’s actually just setup for an intense finale, and a chance to connect with the main character. It’s a slow movie overall, but not an empty one. There are also some scenes where it’s apparent that the budget wasn’t large enough to convey the proper scope of the blackout, though these moments are few and far between. Most of the time, these limitations are easy to forgive once you take into account how impressive the rest of the film is.
In the end, Dark feels like an old-timey Hitchcockian thriller that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1960s movie screen. Dante himself claimed in interviews that this was Basile’s intention, so I consider the film a success. There were a few moments where I checked my watch to see how far along we were, but overall I was entertained. In the wrong hands, this premise could have easily turned into an independent artsy mess, but instead we received a sincere and disturbing movie about how our emotions affect those around us. If you have the patience to sit through some leisurely pacing in order to get to the action, it’s worth a watch. If I were one of the original kickstarter backers, I’d be pleased with how this one turned out.