By Andrew Buckner
Rating: **** out of *****.
“Dark Romance” (2013), the debut short from co-writer and director Matthew Mahler, accomplishes in eight minutes what most thriller features need approximately an hour and a half or more to do. It tells a complete tale, albeit a familiar one, without the excess often utilized in a full-length fiction. But, the most intriguing element about Mahler’s account is that there is a considerable build-up. There is a high level of of suspense generated in its brief run. We, as cinematic patrons, are also offered a consistent focus on the obsessive signposts of affection directed toward our lead, Tim Cooper (another remarkable portrayal from Timothy J. Cox). They begin simply enough. But, soon they spiral quickly, wildly out of control. On Monday, Tim is given a card with a poem inside. They announce the regards of a mysterious someone in his office. By Tuesday, the chain of events have become violent. Wednesday is the bleakest day of them all. Thursday unveils a darkly smirk-inducing epilogue.
This condensed frame works beautifully. It also helps keep the intensity and pace wire tight. This also assists, in the tradition of the best white knuckle fabrications, in keeping our interest piqued to increasing levels throughout. Mahler makes the scenes showcasing the rapidly bizarre episodes for each of the previously stated spells as diminutive and to the point as possible. This narrative modus strengthens all of the aforementioned components terrifically well. Such is utilized via Mahler’s smart and claustrophobic direction. It is also strikingly unveiled in the sturdy screenplay he co-wrote with Ross Mahler. We are only allowed enough space in each sequence to see how unhinged Tim’s admirer is becoming. Before we can begin to fathom what is occurring, Mahler moves onto the next cringe-worthy instance. This makes for an undertaking that certainly delivers the exciting, expected ingredients of its genre.
To its discredit, the central figures are vaguely etched. Nevertheless, we know enough to care for them. It more than suffices given the scant duration of the piece. This is especially true of our labor-minded advertising executive antagonist. But, Cox more than makes up for this by being continuously affable. He fluently projects the type of managerial individual everyone at any place of employment, be it genuine or imagined, would like to have making the daily decisions. Tim’s secretary, Tiffany (Tiffany Browne-Tavarez), shares nearly as much screen time as Cox’s character. She proves herself to be a capable counterpart to Tim. This is with a simultaneously vulnerable, unflinching and bravura enactment. Though she is as broadly authored as the personality Cox brings to life, the duo both make their respective interpretations feel clearly unique. Because of this, we are more than willing to overlook the expository gaps in the Mahlers’ script. The proceedings are so well-done that we can also forgive another lingering sensation. This is that there is nothing new about the Fatal Attraction (1987) style confines of the straight-forward story arc. The twists are mostly expected. Correspondingly, the reveal of Tim’s devotee is obvious.
But, Mahler, who also provides the impressive cinematography and editing found herein, builds a plethora of memorable horror moments in an undersized expanse. Aside from the depictions and technical aspects, with Brian Shields and Ross Mahler both giving stirring turns in brief roles, this is where the real strength of the photoplay lies. Besides the already noted finale, what occurs on Tuesday is macabrely amusing. It is also masterfully designed. The segment optimizes its impact by eluding, but never glimpsing. Wednesday proves an appropriately unsettling, and grandly designed, climax. This arises as it more than ups the ante on the murderous crush taking place. The more light-hearted occasions of Monday mechanize just as well. They add a natural sense of enhanced disposition to Tim, Tiffany, and fellow employee, Cam (in a likable, credible and proficient representation by Cameron Rankin). It also adds similar personality to the composition as a whole. This is reflected in the natural, jesting banter that we hear early on. Such an attribute is just as active when the speech is more somber and terrifying in the advanced stretches.
Mahler has offered an all-around solid exertion with “Dark Romance”. The 8mm Films production, made for a mere $500 as a part of The 48 Hour Film project, excels as an exhibition of perpetually worrisome mood. It lacks the visual potency and risk-taking apparent in Cox and Mahler’s later collaboration, “What Jack Built” (2015). In this concoction not a word was spoken. Furthermore, the entirety of its eleven minutes was a one man display. Still, this is a gripping effort. The New York shot opus intends to both entertain and frighten. This is while summoning a vibrant aesthetic and authentic sensibility. It does this splendidly. The chemistry between Cox and Mahler, as well as the crew and their spectators, is more than visible in every frame. There is abundantly enough here to recommend this labor of fanatical love. The devotion to the craft from all involved resonates throughout. “Dark Romance” is a true gem. Because of this, I greatly anticipate seeing what Cox and Mahler’s next collaboration, “Finality” (2017), brings about.