The oxymoronic title of Dark Light involves a paradox. Like a Buddhist koan, it announces the film as a contradictory challenge that the viewer, sitting in the dark cinema looking at the flickering light projected onto the screen, must try to resolve, even if resolution is ultimately impossible. This is an impression reinforced by the opening sequence, throwing us in medias res as Annie Knox (Jessica Madsen) runs around her isolated rural home at night with a shotgun and a torch, while little Emily (Opal Littleton) hides upstairs. As this frenetic game of cat and mouse unfolds, it is not altogether clear if the mother is trying to protect or to hunt her daughter – and if there is someone or something else in the house with them, when Annie fires the gun it proves to be her ex-husband Paul (Ed Brody) whom she shoots, before swinging the gun back around towards her daughter. As, shortly afterwards, a sceptical Sheriff Dickerson (Kristina Clifford) interviews Annie about her violent behaviour and her now missing daughter, we are no more certain than the law officer whether Annie is deranged and dangerous, or somehow a victim.
As his previous feature Open 24 Hours (2018) amply demonstrated, writer/director Padraig Reynolds is something of an expert at negotiating these kinds of ambiguities. Here, while Annie insists that something monstrous has been repeatedly invading the house and has taken Emily, Padraig initially piles on details about Annie’s fraught inner life that tell against Annie’s version of events. Annie is prone to nervous breakdowns. She has just undergone a difficult divorce. Not only has her own mother recently committed suicide, but Annie and Emily have moved back into the farmhouse of Annie’s childhood where the death occurred. All the elements are in place for Dark Light to concern a woman coming apart at the seams under the stresses of her collapsing marriage, her grief for her mother, and her susceptibility to mental illness. Even the modus operandi of the intruders – hide and seek with shining lights – echo Annie’s own favourite childhood game, played in the cornfield with torches. Annie is actually playing this with Emily when she first notices the presence of something else that shouldn’t be there, apparently joining in the same game. So the strong impression is given that this domestic invasion merely represents Annie’s own beleaguered psychological state and sense of alienation.
As is the way with genre, though, the unwelcome visitors to the Knox house are soon seen and felt – and not just by Annie – in close encounters that appear to objectify their presence and to strip away the ambiguity that the film has so carefully built, reducing Dark Light to a disappointingly literal creature feature. For once these monsters have lost their metaphorical force, they seem somehow diminished, their appearance – a bright, blinking headlight on a skeletal body – faintly ridiculous, despite their escalating aggression and energy-sapping attacks. Maybe, however, this reading is mistaken. Maybe, in much the same way that the film expressly visualises Annie’s nightmares, it also maintains Annie’s deluded point of view throughout. Maybe the only monsters are in Annie’s mind, as she passes her own inherited madness down to the next young woman in the Knox line (and by implication murders a lot of people along the way).
It is a koan alright, and the more you think it through, the more you will tie yourself in hermeneutic knots. For any solution lies between the cracks of the film, in its cralwspaces and underneath its floorboards, shedding only the darkest of lights on the creak structure of this family.
Dark Light was seen and reviewed at Arrow Video FrightFest 2019.