Female monsters are in vogue again, after their frequent occurrence in ’80s and ’90s horror films like “Misery,” “The Craft,” and “The Entity.” Recent indie flicks, from “Thoroughbreds” to “Wildling,” ruminate on the complex place at which terror and girlhood intersect. It’s rich subject matter for the genre: women’s oppression, these films argue, can spur females to do unspeakable, difficult things. We’re in a horror heyday that marks an evolution from the ’70s rape-revenge films to something richer—but not every female-focused scary movie can join that burgeoning legacy. Case in point: “The Dark,” a clunky, simplistic Tribeca debut from newcomer Justin P. Lange.
The film kicks off with a tense showdown between a rural store clerk and Josef (Karl Markovics), an on-the-lam criminal. After shooting the clerk in the face, Josef clumsily ends up in Devil’s Den, a treacherous section of woods that comes with a here-be-dragons warning from the locals. The rumors are true, and Josef eventually ends up in a battle for his life with girl-monster Mina (Nadia Alexander), who (spoiler alert!) murders him and eats his flesh. The kill gives her more than she bargained for, though, when it turns out Josef was on the run for kidnapping—and his victim, Alex (Toby Nichols), is still in the backseat of his car.
“The Dark” has good enough bones, but its promising act one scares soon give way to a plodding, melodramatic tale of arrested development. Mina and Alex have both suffered at the hands of brutal adults, but rather than allowing for that promising commonality to evolve into something meaningful, Lange lets it peter into plot minutiae as the kids struggle to avoid detection. Their dull escapades are occasionally fractured by Mina’s golden-hued backstory, but those moments aren’t much better. In fact, they present one of the film’s most glaring errors.
When viewers find out how Mina became the grotesque, misanthropic monster we see in the film, the sequence is marred by narrative shortcuts. Rather than giving Mina a substantial source of trauma, Lange piles all her problems on an unnecessarily brutal child rape scene. The entire source of Mina’s character, like so many male-crafted women before her, is an exploitative sexual assault. That might not be such a big deal if there wasn’t already an entire cinematic history of insulting female rape victims preceding her, or if Lange hadn’t decided to inexplicably pin the rape on Mina’s one-dimensionally terrible mother—instead of, you know, her rapist. Even when men brutalize women, it’s still women’s fault. Adding insult to injury, although Alex—scarred blind by the evil Josef—has clearly faced his own share of horrors at the hands of grown men, his trauma is never brought to the screen. Instead, it’s indicated by subtle dialogue and narrative hints, showing the kind of deference and skill male filmmakers often only afford to characters of their own sex.
What Lange seems to think is outré character motivation is actually a suffocating reality for women everywhere, and it’s neither interesting nor inventive to mar that reality for big-screen shock value. Rape aside, “The Dark” is an okay film, with Marissa Clemence‘s great prosthetic makeup and Nadia Alexander’s gutsy lead performance pulling the script’s dead weight. Still, they can’t drag this clunky story out of the woods in time to make it a satisfying horror watch. When all’s said and done, “The Dark” reads like the abominable love child of “Let the Right One In” and a Lifetime movie. [D]