By Andrew Buckner
Rating: **** out of *****.
Darling, the fourth motion picture from writer and director Mickey Keating, draws heavy inspiration from Roman Polanski’s 1965 masterpiece Repulsion. It also aligns itself with David Lynch’s truly unnerving Erasherhead from 1977, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents from 1961 and a number of pictures by Alfred Hitchcock. The most noticeable of these is Hitchcock’s timeless adaptation of Robert Bloch’s novel from 1960, Psycho. This is especially true in the last half hour of the project, when a certain household item involved in the previously stated magnum opus’ most popular sequence is involved and returned to constantly. The symmetry is also amplified given the context in which it is cleverly used. Keating’s labor of fear conjuring also calls to mind Edmund E. Mirhige’s audacious and disturbing 1990 effort, Begotten. Such is evident in its meticulous, slowly grinding pace. Such is also noteworthy in its ability to unnerve through its coldly projected sights. This is as well as its emphasis on merciless atmosphere over gore. A warning within the first minute of the attempt about the “strobe lights and hallucinatory images”, which are excessively and exhaustingly utilized in the concluding act, is reminiscent of an attention-garnering trick from the maestro of the low-budget gimmick, William Castle. This all adds to the claustrophobic fun on display, for cinephiles particularly, immeasurably.
The work overall is proof that beautifully executed style, though often interrupted by its obvious imitation, is enough to carry a tale. This is even given one such as this which is as sparse on plot as it is effects, locations and characters. The crisp, striking and gorgeous black and white cinematography by Mac Fisken highlights this parallel all the more. This is obviously an exercise in approach, restraint and minimalism, made apparent in its wisely taut seventy-six minute runtime, as much as it is a love letter to the aforementioned architects of the silver screen. In that sense, Keating’s undertaking mechanizes spectacularly well. Yet, this does little to detract from the reality that this is simply a handsomely established retread of the same essential fiction, and much the comparable chain of events, that we have seen in far too many horror enterprises beforehand. The mileage each viewer will get from this particular offering is determinate on how deeply their admiration for the classic model, and the singular panache associated with it, is above all other items of moviemaking. This is as exact of a patron’s ability to appreciate such attributes with the sacrifice of any genuine bits or originality. Personally, this resulted in a largely solid endeavor. Darling is a good silver screen venture overall. This is even if it just misses the great benchmark it is striving admirably for. The piece left me exhilarated through most of my sit-down with it. Yet, ultimately, it left me feeling hollow and, somehow, not fully satisfied.
Keating’s production concerns the young, lonely title woman (Ashley Lauren Carter in a mesmerizing performance that mirrors Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion eerily well). She is given the task of being left to watch over a home. Much in the tradition of the set-up of uncountable dread inducing exertions from the past, this is without being fully aware of what has occurred within its walls. Slowly, she begins to question herself and her surroundings as unnatural events, that may be a product of her own psyche, begin to taunt her. This is another example of a photoplay asking its spectators the question: Is it the house or the girl herself who is haunted?
The configuration toys with the answer to these question brilliantly. It does so by giving us long shots of isolated corridors, also in the archetypical custom. This is punctuated with ominous doors, some of which open by themselves as if welcoming her in, that could contain any manner of unspeakable things. There are also further age tested, enduring elements such as the winding staircase, hearing voices unexpectedly and the occasional ringing of a phone, which also maintain a fittingly retro veneer in this composition, to shock Darling and her audience. Yet, none of this is done artificially. This never elucidates a cheap jump, as it would in a lesser picture.
The first fifteen minutes, when the effort plays up these enduring ghost chronicle facets to boundless consequence, are when the flick is at its best. It is also when it is at its most promising. There is also much interest garnered afterward when Darling becomes obsessed with an individual named The Man (an enactment by Bryan Morvant that is as sophisticated and well-done as the article itself). This takes up much of the second act. Though these particular physiognomies are rehashed from about as large a number of sources as the bits of spectral narrative announced previously, it signals a shift in the creative temperament; a curtain being pulled on the destination where we, the onlookers, are being led.
Such a manipulative turn changes the direction of the Glass Eye Pix release several times throughout the picture’s six ‘chapters’. It is riveting; an honest display of storytelling craftsmanship. It is one that makes the familiar sections, so prevalent herein, easier to overlook. Alas, it assures us of much more than the affair actually delivers. The conclusive destination of the piece, though as tremendously put together as the rest of the endeavor, is just as acquainted as many of its ingredients. Such exposes these alterations in the movement of the arc of the yarn as window dressing. That these high-quality details were meant merely as another diversion from how often this account has been told before is disheartening to say the least.
But, what a terrific job it does of distracting us from the obvious. This is courtesy of the proficient technical angles all around. Sean Young’s brief portrayal of Madame is excellent. Al-Nisa Petty is remarkable as Miss Hill. Larry Fessenden, as Officer Maneretti, and John Speradakos, as Officer Maneretti, also do well with their respective depictions. The lighting is terrific. This quality assists in evoking the illusion of being immersed in a new variation of unsettling exertions from the past abundantly. Giona Ostinelli’s music, often reminiscent of a score by Hitchcock’s Psycho composer Bernard Herman, fits the old-school impression of the proceedings impeccably. Valerie Krulfiefer’s editing is just as impressive. Pete Gerner, Flynn Marie Pyykkonen and Brian Spear’s make-up is pleasing. Contributions from the sound department, by Sean Duffy and M. Parker Kozak, give off the sensation that we are watching a classic from the 40’s- early 60’s. This is issued with jaw-dropping accuracy. Spears’ special and Sydney Clara Bafman’s optical effects are ominous and credible. The upshot is certainly the amazing, obsolescent replica Keating was going for.
What is most welcome is the subtlety. In an age where terror seems defined by how much they show, Keating has proven with Darling, as well as his prior effort, Pod (2015), that scares are best delivered when much of what is causing them is left in the shadows. The imagination is the most frightening place of all. Keating knows this. He uses it to tremendous influence. The fact that it is mostly a one-woman show, with a large weight of the quality of the endeavor based on Carter’s ability to transform into our central personality, shows signs of courage and confidence. These two words can be applied to much of Darling. This is so much so that when Keating has shown us all he has for us to see and the drapes are pulled on the well-kept mystery at large, that we believe we should be blown away, frenziedly applauding the film. But, in the end, Keating is a bit too reliant on the proven, and a plot could most politely be described as ‘bare bones’, for it to be the tour de force he obviously yearns for it to become. Instead, we admire the parts more than the sum. Yet, the whole is far superior to the bulk of the dime a dozen genre entries which flood theatres and streaming services nowadays. It is sure to please fans of avant-garde trepidation. Its audience are those who rightly applauded The Witch from earlier this year. If you were among those who were left scratching their heads over the praise for the aforementioned feature, this is not for you. For all others, this comes highly recommended.