‘The Dark Red’: Film Review

A psychiatric patient's convoluted backstory drives this intriguing if overloaded indie genre exercise.

Dan Bush
April Billingsley, Kelsey Scott, Conal Byrne, Rhoda Griffis, John Curran, Jill Jane Clements, Bertrand Setaro Clark, Kevin Stillwell.

Running time: 98 MIN.

One of three directors who first won attention with 2007’s excellent three-part thriller “The Signal” (not to be confused with another enterprising sci-fi-tinged indie of that title from 2014), Dan Bush has made several interesting genre features on his own since then. Like cloning fantasy “The Reconstruction of William Zero” and bank robbery-turned-monster movie “The Vault,” his latest film intrigues with an offbeat premise even if it ultimately doesn’t develop to fully satisfying results.

Once again co-written with cast member Conal Byrne, “The Dark Red” is an overcomplicated stew of apparent madness, conspiracy, supernatural powers and revenge whose narrative elements never quite mesh or even come to full fruition individually. Nonetheless, this quasi-horror mixed bag will hold viewers’ attention for its originality even as it flags in both credibility and suspense. Dark Sky is releasing the movie on five U.S. screens March 6, simultaneous with its digital-format launch. It should do well enough among genre fans — who nonetheless will be kept waiting a bit longer for Bush and Byrne to hit a home run.

After a brief prelude in which a Child Support Services worker (Jill Jane Clements) finds a toddler alive in the trailer home of its dead (presumably overdosed) mother, we’re introduced to that now-grown foundling years later. Things have not gone well for Sybil (April Billingsley) who is under observation in a psychiatric ward after her adoptive parent died under suspicious circumstances not long ago. As interviewed by Dr. Deluce (a rather thankless role for Kelsey Scott), she reluctantly relates how she got here, all the while certain she won’t be believed.

Sybil has been diagnosed as schizophrenic, but insists the voices she hears are real — a rare blood enzyme has somehow made her capable of reading others’ thoughts. (Later we discover it gives her additional, murkily defined paranormal abilities as well.) She claims it’s this distinction that resulted in her baby being ripped from her womb, and she’s frantic to be freed so she can locate the child, whom she’s convinced is still alive.

As she tells the doc this backstory, we see her courtship with recently met nice guy David (Byrne), who takes her to meet his family only after her pregnancy is well-advanced. The parents (Rhoda Griffis, John Curran) exhibit a creepily excessive interest in their grandchild-to-be during a welcome dinner that rapidly goes south, leading to extreme peril from which Sybil barely escapes.

The film continually returns to the rather ponderous framing device of present-tense therapist/patient sessions, which stalls its momentum. It’s a narrative structure less tricky than awkward, and only seems more so when we finally ditch the flashbacks so Sybil can seek vengeance — a process that’s initiated in the corniest way possible, replete with poker-faced training montage.

Drive-through plot holes become more evident as the conclusion nears, and many key story ideas (from the heroine’s “powers” to the “cult” she squares off against) never really come into clearer focus beyond a quick initial sketch. It doesn’t help that the film’s pacing often feels slack and its visual presentation uninspired — a surprise, since the Bush and Byrne’s last effort, “The Vault,” starring James Franco, had a firm grip on atmospherics. Performances here are variable, somewhat hamstrung by the fact that the histrionics often outdistance plausible character-writing.

Yet even if the overloaded story ends up being a case of too much explication and not enough involvement, its twistiness still keeps our curiosity whetted. And the climax brings at least some payoff in terms of violent release. While “The Dark Red” has more problems than plusses — and at various points it recalls other, better films from “The Fury” to 1994’s neglected horror gem “Aswang” (aka “The Unearthing”) — still, in its convoluted fashion, it does avoid any sense of serving obvious genre formulas.

Bush and Byrne’s collaborative features to date being sufficiently adventurous and different from one another, it seems almost inevitable that they’ll eventually knock one out of the park. In the meantime, “Dark Red” reps another respectable miss that promises more than it delivers.

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'The Dark Red': Film Review

Reviewed online, San Francisco, March 2, 2020. Running time: 98 MIN.

Production: A Dark Sky Films release of Dark Sky and Psychopia Pictures presentation in association Hivemind Media. Producer: Josh Wilcox, Dan Bush, Conal Byrne. Executive producers: Clay Floren, Aimee Shieh, Jacob Gentry, David Bruckner, Brent Gillett, Matt Crenshaw, Declan Byrne, Rich Hawkins.

Crew: Director: Dan Bush. Screenplay: Bush, Conal Byrne. Camera: Victoria K. Warren. Editor: Bush. Music: Ben Lovett.

With: April Billingsley, Kelsey Scott, Conal Byrne, Rhoda Griffis, John Curran, Jill Jane Clements, Bertrand Setaro Clark, Kevin Stillwell.

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