…In the Dark (aka Dark Exorcism)
It’s tempting to start this review by asking the question of why possession thrillers are so difficult to get right, but the truth is, the answer is obvious…”The Exorcist” casts a long shadow. When you have a movie that knocks it out of the park before the genre is even defined, any other movie in that genre feels like it needs to replicate it in some way to catch up. That’s a tricky place for a filmmaker to be put, but the talented ones find a way around that trap, and set new ones for filmmakers that come after it.
The biggest thing that stands out with “…In the Dark” isn’t how well it makes it’s way around the traps of the possession thriller formula, although that is certainly a huge part of it’s success, but in how it has four female characters at it’s center, and each one has a distinct vantage point on the events in the film. We start with Bethany (Grace Folsom), an artist living with her mother who is working late on a painting one night. It’s a decided departure from the works we see around the room (her studio), and that throws her mother (Joan, played by Catherine Cobb Ryan) for a loop. Bethany is listening to music while working, but her mother tells her it’s too late. Bethany turns the music off…yet, it turns on by itself. An obvious jump tactic for the genre, to be sure, but still effective, especially when Bethany goes to bed, and it happens again, waking her mother up, who goes down and checks on her daughter, only to be given quite a jolt when she realizes the figure sitting in the dark isn’t her daughter. That night is what sets the rest of the film in motion, as Bethany reaches out to Veronica (Lynn Justinger), a psych grad student working on her dissertation who reaches out to a teacher (Lois Kearne, played by Fiona Horrigan) who has some experience with the paranormal. Veronica is curious on the subject, but a skeptic on the validity of such claims, feeling more that outbursts that are attributed to the supernatural or paranormal are a manifestation of mental illness rather than something otherworldly; her mother went crazy when she was younger, and later killed herself, so Veronica has a personal interest in such matters. However, her skepticism turns to belief when confronted by things that are otherwise impossible to rationally explain. Veronica is, indeed, the main character of the film, but all four women have an important part to play in the way “…In the Dark” affects us in the end. Bethany is the possessed woman, and Folsom does a fine job with the physical challenges of the role. As her mother, it’s difficult for Ryan to break out of the freaked-out mother conventions of her character, but she has moments (especially near the end) that are exceptionally powerful. As Professor Kearne, Horrigan is the woman who knows the most about the subject, and understands what everyone is dealing with, and she plays the role with the authority and intelligence it requires, while also being a mentor (and something of a mother figure, at times) to Veronica. Justinger has the juiciest role in the film, of course, because it’s Veronica whose arc we are following the closest, and she’s terrific at playing the demands of the role from an intellectual and emotional perspective. There’s something else about this quartet that is just beneath the surface of writer-director David Spaltro’s script, though, that makes each one an important part of the film- in a way, Bethany, her mother, and Professor Kearne all feel like a reflection of Veronica’s mother, whom we don’t really find out about until later. Bethany is a reflection of the mother Veronica remembers, and is such, is motivation for her to continue with the case in hopes of saving her. Bethany’s mother, meanwhile, is all maternal instincts, and while she is flawed, she is the mother that Veronica missed out on having due to her mental issues- Veronica doesn’t know what it’s like to have a mother like this, and it’s difficult for her to relate until the end. Kearne, however, is the mother figure Veronica needs right now, at this time in her life, to give her guidance and wisdom to know how to handle both the supernatural forces she is faced with in Bethany’s situation, but also the rational perspective she’ll need to figure things out with her boyfriend (Jesse R. Tendler). The dynamic between all four characters was, for me, an even bigger driving force in the film than the horror aspects of it, and when character wins out over spectacle in such a film, you know you’ve got a good film on your hands.
It feels like horror films are practically impossible to pull off nowadays successfully. Don’t get me wrong- there’s always one or two each year that do it, but so much of them just go through the motions of the genre, hitting all the typical beats of a particular idiom (slasher, found footage, etc.) that something truly fresh is rare. Of course, adhering to formula to a certain degree is fine when it’s done with imagination and passion (think “Insidious,” “The Conjuring,” “Let Me In” and “Sinister”), but the genre has become overrun by specific traits that legitimate scares have been replaced by “jumps.” “…In the Dark” has some jumps, but more often than not, Spaltro (“…Around,” “Things I Don’t Understand”) goes right for the jugular. That that way of scaring the viewer comes at us subtly instead of viscerally is a welcome change-of-pace, and how he builds to “lack of” payoffs isn’t a hindrance to the film (that shadowed figure Bethany’s mother sees, for example), but a strength. He wants to creep you the Hell out while not necessarily giving you a heart attack, and he does that quite wonderfully. It starts with the credits, and that opening scene, and continues throughout the rest of the film. Yes, he uses shadows and darkness to put the viewer on edge, but some of the creepiest moments in the film happen in perfect lighting. (Having a score, by Fritz Myers, that hits all the horror bases while also being something aesthetically exciting also helps.) “…In the Dark” may be where the scary things live in Spaltro’s film, but seeing a film like this see the light of day in a genre that grows too tired too often makes travelling into the depths of the battle between good vs. evil for 80 minutes worth every second.