Darken is a film that throws up two middle fingers at anyone trying to place it in a genre-movie box. It’s a sci-fi, horror, fantasy mashup about a depressed nurse who’s whisked away to another dimension. The film’s director, Audrey Cummings, pulls from many pop culture influences to create a dark and complex world that begs to be explored.
Eve (Bea Santos) is a troubled nurse who’s been struggling to cope with losing a patient. Not wanting to face the world, Eve avoids going to work. While out collecting her thoughts, she comes across a woman bleeding on someone’s doorstep. Being a nurse, Eve tries to help but things take a strange turn. The dying woman is from another dimension and she utters words that send Eve into another realm.
Eve ends up in a world called Darken, a rundown, windowless, factory-like place populated by unravelling citizens. Darken’s ruthless leader Clarity (Christine Horne) intends to capture their new visitor from Earth. To make it back home, Eve must find some companions and escape Clarity’s wrath long enough to unlock Darken’s secrets.
Darken is an unusual film that is tough to categorize. You could call it horror and even sci-fi, but my instinct is to call it fantasy. It’s a mystical incantation that transports Eve between realms even though the portal characters use looks like a teleporter from a hardcore sci-fi film. As for the horror elements, the film is always tense and creates a constant sense of dread. There are two reasons for this. One, the world feels mysterious, deadly, and familiar yet off-kilter – Darken has a David Lynch-like nightmare quality to it. And Two, Eve is always on the run. That continuous feeling of being pursued counts as horror in my book.
The movie’s production design goes a long way in evoking that constant state of dread. Cummings knows how to position the camera in subtle ways that tell the viewer things aren’t right. In one sequence, Eve heads down a long corridor, getting smaller with every step and you almost lose her in the frame. It reminds me of survival horror games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil. Darken lacks those games overt sense of menace but creates the same alien sense of place that keeps your fight-or-flight response on edge.
The world’s inhabitants are an odd hodgepodge of people dressed in all kinds of styles. The first character we meet wears a frilly shirt that looks stolen from those lovable vamps in What We Do in the Shadows. (#puffyshirts4ever). Clarity rocks a steampunk-ish look, there’s a slick-haired rockabilly guy, and one man wears a Frodo and Sam-like green cloak. The varied looks are a solid example of world building. It sells the notion that Darken is home to a jambalaya of outcasts from different places with different problems.
Darken offers an intriguing premise and it does some interesting things visually, but that’s all meaningless if the story doesn’t deliver. Darken’s plot lost me early on and never won me back. Eve should be our point of view character and as she learns Darken’s mysteries so do we. There is too much time spent with characters referring to people and events the viewer isn’t privy too. These moments left me feeling like a third wheel. People speak of Exiles, Haven, and Mother Darken with reverence while the audience doesn’t know who or what they are and why they matter. Great films hold some of the mystery back to keep viewers intrigued but Darken’s secrets remained opaque. I lost interest in playing catch-up with what the characters already knew. This may not be the case, though, if I watched Darken’s prequel, an 11-part web-series.
The movie also features a few competent but uninspired action beats. When it’s time for fisticuffs, the herky-jerky camera moves in tight for the close quarters’ combat. There are all kinds of ferocious screams and grunts as combatants lurch, slash, and stab at each other. These intense but unsatisfying moments don’t last long and mostly serve to move the story forward. No one should come to Darken for some slick action sequences.
Darken feels like a TV series that hasn’t yet found its footing. There’s an intriguing premise that hints at something more enjoyable but sticking through the early awkward phase is a grind. Vague stakes, weak characters, and clunky dialogue make watching Darken an unsatisfying experience. But even though I didn’t enjoy this film I’m curious to see how the series evolves. And if the post-credits scene is any sign, the Darken universe plans on sticking around for a while. Darken didn’t come close to hitting it out of the park but I’ll check out its next at bat.