Out on the periphery of a rural community, in an area known ominously as Devil’s Den, there is a derelict house – long ago a family’s home – storied among locals as a place where curious trespassers end up “torn to pieces”. It even draws the odd ghoulish tourist from the city, although they rarely live to tell the tale of what they find there.
It is the perfect generic terrain for a familiar cabin-in-the-woods shocker, and The Dark even opens with that hoariest of clichés, an old-timer at a gas station warning of untold terrors lurking beyond the bounds – yet while writer/director Justin P. Lange’s feature debut (expanded from his 2013 short) certainly features axe murders and the flesh-hungry undead, it repeatedly confounds expectations while confronting us with unspeakable horrors that are altogether more real, grounded and human.
“So you believe in monsters?’, young, blind Alex (Toby Nichols) asks the girl (Nadia Alexander) who is helping him evade the police. We have already seen what he cannot see – that she is a monster herself, and killed the man, Josef Hofer (Karl Markovics), who had brought Alex to this place. Yet her name, Mina, has literary associations less with a bloodsucker than with Dracula’s prey, while Hofer’s forename significantly evokes Josef Fritzl. Here monstrousness is the flipside of victimhood, and the pained aggression of which Mina and Alex are very capable is part and parcel of the physical scarring that both bear as outward signifiers of a much deeper trauma. This damaged pair, brought together by chance – or it it fate? – offer each other a profound understanding and empathy, even with the possibility of healing.
Accordingly, the film’s title alludes not just to the shadowy contours of the woods and of the ruined building at their centre, but also to some very dark adult themes of horrific depravity and the dehumanising legacy of abuse. If here be monsters, they were made, not born. The results are as upsetting as they are moving.