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Non-Review Review: From the Dark

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2015.

A large part of the joy of From the Dark is the way that the story translates its horror conventions to rural Ireland without breaking a sweat.

From the Dark is a very simple horror story that could be told anywhere. It is the standard story about a young couple who get lost in a remote location, discovering that their phones don’t work just as they stumble across some grotesque evil. It is a standard horror template, which feels particularly traditional once it becomes clear that the grotesque evil exposed by our two lead characters are very traditional vampires. However, director Conor McMahon does an excellent job executing all those traditional tropes against a very Irish backdrop.

A lot of the credit belongs to cinematographer Michael Lavelle who skilfully conveys the sense of rural Ireland as an isolated wilderness. From the Dark unfolds in Offaly, with Lavelle working hard to make the locality seem ethereal and haunted. Long grass sways in the wind, the sky lights up with beautiful colours at sunrise and sunset. From the Dark manages to expertly capture a sense of the countryside that is both breathtaking and alien. It seems like a world that is simultaneously magical and dangerous.

From the Dark is a rather efficient little thriller – one that moves along quite cleanly and efficiently. However, it is executed with a great deal of technical skill and proficiency, making for a satisfying old-school horror film.

fromthedarkIn many respects, From the Dark could be considered minimalistic. There are essentially only two named characters – assuming one doesn’t count the faint voice of a phone GPS warning our heroes they are wandering further and further into danger. There are two more characters of note who appear over the course of the film, but neither really gets any lines. It is a very sleek and well-constructed film, one designed for economy. From the Dark makes very skilful use of limited resources.

Most notably, the film shrewdly avoids awkward exposition by limiting the cast to two outsiders. Sarah and Mark arrive from Dublin, taking a weekend down the country. They get lost, and hilarity ensues. (Note: “hilarity” may involve vampires.) However, From the Dark steers clear of the contrived info-dump that most horror movies seem to require in their second act. We never find out what exactly is stalking the countryside, or where it came from. We never figure out why the creature that caused this problem was not simply killed outright.

From the Dark counts on the audience’s familiarity with movie vampires to help carry the film. Because vampires are such a stock monster, From the Dark can count on the viewers to quickly figure out the rules. These things “infect” their victims through bite marks to the neck? A stake is recovered in a bog? These monsters recoil from the light? From the Dark never has Sarah or Mark explain that they have stumbled across real live Irish vampires, but it doesn’t have to. Everybody knows the rules, and the film reiterates them quickly, so it can go about its business.

Director Conor McMahon does a wonderful job providing all the jump scares. Horror – like comedy – is often more about timing than anything else. McMahon generally understands how to structure his scenes so that the big moments arrive when they should. There are one or two moments where a scare seems to come a second too early or a second too late – mostly following a fake scare to throw the audience off-guard, a classic one-two of rhythmic horror storytelling – but McMahon is quite good at getting the reaction that he needs.

From the Dark works quite well at establishing mood. Cleverly, the film avoids revealing too much of its monsters too early. Instead, things seem to move around in the background of the frame. McMahon is quite fond of having something stir just out of focus, creating the impression of a supernatural lighting effect rather than a person. This helps to build up to the reveal of the monsters. From the Dark gets through most of its runtime without revealing the face or make-up of its lead creature, teasing the audience with a less-is-more approach.

Acknowledging its cinematic influences, the fleeting glimpses of the creature are a very traditional and very classical vampire design. With its bald head, long body and extended limbs – along with its strange movements and the way the movie tends to shoot the creature in silhouette and shadow – helps to create a monster that looks like it escaped from F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Johnny Murphy does great work with the prosthetics and make-up design on the film as a whole.

That said, the movie’s reluctance to reveal the creature too early does lead to some choices that don’t quite work. McMahon invites us to view the action through a night-vision lens so as to simulate a predator stalking its prey. It is a choice that makes sense in the context of concealing the creature, but which jars with the rest of the movie’s traditional aesthetic. Coupled with the fact that these shots look to have been filmed by hand, it feels like something from a more contemporary “found footage” film, at odds with the more old-school approach of the rest of the film.

This is a minor problem. From the Dark does exactly what it says on the tin, translating a very familiar vampire story into a rather unconventional setting, cleverly avoiding unnecessary clutter along the way. It is a recognisable template, but one executed with considerable skill.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 3

2 Responses

  1. Horrible stuff only good part was I thought everyone died n that didnt happen

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