Until 15 years ago or so, zombie cinema was still a fairly narrow subgenre. These days, however, it seems to be one size that fits all — or at least is stretched to fit every other genre, from comedy to romance to globe-trotting action, with the occasional traditional gorefest thrown in for old time’s sake.
Whether it’s really well suited to a drama about child abuse is something viewers of “The Dark” will have to decide for themselves, though perhaps the better questions are: Did we even need to find out? Aren’t there (many) better ways of approaching such a difficult theme than via a shotgun marriage with horror conventions? On its own terms, writer-director Justin P. Lange’s debut feature (with DP Klemens Hufnagl credited as co-director) is well-crafted and well-acted. But in trying to succeed as something both metaphorical and very literal-minded, the movie ends up being neither one nor the other — not psychologically deep enough to succeed as pure drama, and too earnest to offer the usual rewards of a genre film.
This Canadian-shot, Austrian-funded, English-language effort begins well enough, with veteran Austrian actor Karl Markovics queasily vivid as a nervous man who pulls into a rural gas station for supplies and directions. Unfortunately, just then his photo — identifying him as one Josef Hofer, an armed and dangerous fugitive — pops up on the attendant’s TV screen, prompting an unpleasant end to their transaction. Karl continues driving to his rather mysterious destination (we never do find out just why he’s going there), an isolated, reputedly haunted house. The home turns out not to be quite so abandoned as it seems, however, and Karl’s meeting with lone resident Mina (Nadia Alexander) proves fateful.
Dubbed Devil’s Den, the entire wooded area is rumored to be patrolled by a “monster” that the lost or curious would be ill-advised to seek out. Mina is, in fact (as she admits herself), that monster: a local girl who disappeared an indeterminate number of years ago, yet somehow survived undetected and undead in her old home, eating the occasional unwary stranger. Yes, like other movie zombies, she consumes human flesh. But unlike them, she can still speak, think, remember and feel something other than blind hunger — feelings aroused when she discovers Karl’s car hides another fugitive: Alex (Toby Nichols), a terrified teenage kidnappee. Having lived by his captor’s sadistic rules for god knows how long, he’s got Stockholm Syndrome, and at first is more worried than relieved by Hofer’s uncharacteristic absence. Among other unspecified torments, Alex was blinded by Karl, so he can’t see that Mina is chalk-white, bears grisly marks of a violent death and otherwise looks very much not right.
An ongoing manhunt for Hofer and his (presumably latest) victim soon brings a snooping local cop to Devil’s Den, driving the teens into the surrounding woods. Still human enough to resist gnawing on someone as ill-treated as she was — flashbacks gradually clue us in on the girl’s past with an alcoholic mother and the latter’s sexually abusive boyfriend — Mina alternates between wanting to surrender Alex to the authorities, and craving the companionship she’s missed for so long. Not just psychologically but physically, his company seems to be bringing her back to (regular, mortal) life.
There’s a modicum of poignancy to this; we can hardly fail to be moved to some extent by the plight of two very young people who’ve both suffered savage abuse. But how seriously do we take rape, kidnapping, disfigurement and so forth in a movie whose heroine is a zombie? Lange and Hufnagl ask us to take it very seriously indeed (you can tell by their omission of any musical scoring). But the solemnity doesn’t really jibe with the need to provide fresh victims every so often (despite Mina’s waning appetite), just so the film has enough violent content to remain more or less in horror territory. The depressive mood pretty much negates any suspense or scares — not that the picture really strives for either, after the first reel. A fadeout raises the notion that Mina’s affliction may not have been what it seems, but while a more dreamlike stylistic or ambiguous narrative approach might have supported that gambit, everything about the movie to that point has been tangibly set in the real world.
It’s a credit to the filmmakers that the narrative plays out as smoothly as it does, in spite of its basic conceptual fissure. “The Dark” (a rather generic title that has no specific relevance) has been attractively shot by Hufnagl, and it moves along at a decent pace if lacking in heightened momentum. The young leads give committed performances, and design contributions are thoughtful.
Yet the overall effect, like the airy piano-driven lament (“Mina’s Theme” by Iva Zabkar) our heroine frequently listens to, is a bid for pathos that thinks it’s being “dark” but instead feels inorganic and affected. “The Dark” deserves credit for avoiding most zombie-pic cliches. Still, the thorny issues raised here ultimately feel trivialized by the horror elements, just as the scares fail to fly because they’re tethered to too much psychological trauma.