cinema, Conor McMahon, couples in peril, couples on vacation, creature feature, film reviews, films, foreign films, From the Dark, Ged Murray, Gerry O'Brien, horror, horror movies, independent film, Irish films, isolation, low-budget films, Michael Lavelle, Monsters, Movies, Niamh Algar, night-vision, peat bog, Pitch Black, set in Ireland, Stephen Cromwell, Stitches, The Descent, weekend in the country, writer-director
Several years ago, a horror film emerged from the ether (so to speak) and gave me a righteous thumping upside my head: the film was Stitches (2012), the filmmaker was an Irish writer/director/editor named Conor McMahon and it became, hands down, one of my favorite films of the entire year. By turns horrifying, hilarious and almost ludicrously splatterific, Stitches was a glorious return to the good old days of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise and introduced the world to one of the greatest, new horror icons of the 2000s: Stitches, the homicidal, undead clown. Death by ice cream cone? Two scoops, please!
After a few years of silence, McMahon’s newest opus, From the Dark (2014), has been unleashed upon a largely unsuspecting populace. As someone who not only liked but positively loved McMahon’s previous film, I found myself greedily seeking more of the same: after all, horror-comedy is never an easy sub-genre to pull off but the writer-director made it seem so easy-breezy the first time around, who can fault me for pulling an Oliver Twist? Proving he’s anything but a one-trick pony, however, McMahon’s newest film is the furthest thing from his previous one: From the Dark is an ultra-serious, low-budget and very modest production (the entire cast appears to consist of four actors, including the costumed creature) that involves a bickering couple stumbling upon ancient evil in the picturesque Irish countryside. While the film never approaches the sublime heights of Stitches, it handily showcases another side of an extremely exciting new(ish) filmmaker and points the way towards an interesting future.
Sarah (Niamh Algar) and Mark (Stephen Cromwell) are a young couple who set off for a romantic getaway but end up running into the usual raft of horror movie problems: their car gets stuck in the mud, in the middle of nowhere, and Mark is forced to set off and find help, as Sarah waits with the vehicle. Characterization is light but we get a few basics: the couple aren’t married, yet, although Mark’s dim view of the institution of wedlock doesn’t bespeak of a particularly rosy future. They bicker a little, although we can tell there’s a lot of love here. We also get the notion that Sarah is the stronger of the two, both mentally and emotionally: again, never bad qualities to have in a horror movie heroine.
Mark ends up stumbling upon a seemingly deserted farmhouse, although an intriguing opening scene has already set the scene for this, as well: our first image is of a grizzled old farmer digging up some sort of “body” in a peat bog, a body which seems to move of its own volition after the farmer leaves. We witness “something” attack and drag the farmer into a nearby pond, which makes Mark’s discovery of him standing in the dark farmhouse, zombie-like, somewhat disconcerting. After bringing Sarah back to the farmhouse, in order to help the seemingly wounded farmer, he suddenly turns on the couple, attacking viciously.
To make matters worse, the “thing” that the farmer initially dug up is roaming around the countryside, looking like a rather terrifying combination of the troglodytes in The Descent (2005), James Sizemore’s creations in The Demon’s Rook (2013) and Max Schreck’s take on Nosferatu. It’s big, monstrous, vaguely humanoid and seems to be very hungry (or angry…it’s a little hard to tell). There is a bright spot, however (quite literally): the creature can’t stand light, similar to the monsters in David Twohy’s under-rated Pitch Black (2000). Thus, Sarah and Mark retreat to the “safety” of the farmhouse and make a desperate stand, utilizing flashlights, lamps, candelabrum, makeshift torches and anything else they can get their hands on. If they can only make it to the morning, perhaps the healing, warm rays of the sun will wash away the evil. It’s going to be a long, dark night, however…a very long one, indeed.
Were I not such a huge fan of McMahon’s previous film, From the Dark would, most likely, have hit me a lot harder than it did: as it stands, however, I can’t help but feel a tad disappointed, even though there’s nothing particularly wrong with the finished product. It is a bit familiar, true: if I’ve seen one recent indie horror about a couple stranded out in the wilderness, I’ve probably seen at least five (to be fair, maybe four). It’s not like McMahon and crew drop the ball on this facet of the film: despite the familiarity, Algar and Cromwell are a likable enough pair and everything moves forward at a fairly fast clip. The cinematography, courtesy of Michael Lavelle, is plenty evocative and atmospheric, even if the occasional camera shake feels woefully out-of-place. The creature looks great from farther away and pretty good from up close (the closer we get, the more it looks like one of the aforementioned Descent critters) and there’s a really intuitive use of light and shadow to help build suspense and tension, both of which also tie into the basic mechanics of the film.
Pretty much everything is in place, yet From the Dark still feels a touch under-cooked, just a shade less developed than it needs to be. For one thing, there’s absolutely no mythos attached to the monster whatsoever: while I found the recent Horsehead (2014) to be cagier than necessary with its titular creature, From the Dark vaults straight past “mysterious” right into “unnecessarily vague.” The creature acts and looks sort of vampiric (the Nosferatu nod, being buried with a stake in its chest), infects people like a zombie, has night-vision (hence the light resistance, I’m assuming), has human-like hands and feet and, at times, seems to be able to fly around (or, at the least, run really quickly and silently). I definitely didn’t need an awkward exposition scene where an old townie holds a flashlight under his chin and tells us a ghost story but I also needed more than what we’re given. As it stands, we don’t even get the vague insinuations of age-old mutations hinted at in The Descent: we pretty much get a monster, which chases our protagonists around for a while.
This sense of vagueness also points towards another major difference between From the Dark and its predecessor: From the Dark is a markedly less clever, inventive film than Stitches. While this might have a little to do with the differences in tone (Stitches, after all, was an extremely dark comedy featuring a motor-mouthed comic in the lead sociopath role), some of the cleverest, most outrageous aspects of Stitches were the incredibly inventive death setpieces, not the hilarious dialogue. In these moments, Stitches was not only one of the smartest, wackiest modern films, it was one of the smartest to come down the pike since the glory days of the ’80s.
As compared to Stitches, From the Dark is as bare-bones, meat-and-potatoes as it gets. The only setpiece in the film that really stands out (aside from the beautifully Gothic final confrontation) is the one where Sarah maneuvers from the upstairs of the farmhouse to the ground floor, moving a lamp, as necessary, to provide meager protection from the rampaging creature. It’s a gloriously tense scene, exquisitely blocked and genuinely thrilling: too bad that so many other scenes devolve into your basic “run and get chased” formula. Stitches was a film where you never had any sense of what’s coming next: from clown sex to death by ice cream scooper, McMahon seemed to pull twists and outrage seemingly out of thin air. Here, McMahon seems to be following a pre-established recipe, giving us all of the required beats and moments for this type of thing but with a decided lack of “seasoning”: even the creature’s aversion to light hearkens back to Pitch Black, which managed to make much better use of that particular “gimmick.”
Despite my disappointment, however, I still enjoyed From the Dark. While Stephen Cromwell’s Mark got a little tedious and whiny by the film’s conclusion, Niamh Algar’s Sarah was always a sturdy protagonist and a more than suitable “final girl” to move the proceedings into their logical conclusion. In fact, I was so impressed with her organic progression from “scared” to “ass-kicking” that I’m going to make a point to follow her more in the future: I’m hoping that more filmmakers take McMahon’s lead and start making Algar the focus of their fright flicks.
I also really liked the film’s look and atmosphere, for the most part, and totally dug the idea of the monster, even if the actual execution was a little too vague and anonymous for my taste: I found myself thinking about it for some time after, trying to fill in the missing pieces. This, of course, is pretty high praise for any film, least of all a low-budget horror film: if I find myself thinking about any of it afterwards, that’s always a big plus, in my book.
There’s no doubt that Conor McMahon is one seriously talented dude: irregardless of its numerous issues, From the Dark is still vastly superior to many similar films. It’s also great to see that he’s not a one-trick-pony: anyone who can create something as giddy and uproarious as Stitches, yet follow it up with something as serious and glum as From the Dark seems poised to avoid pigeon-holing at all costs. At the end of the day, however, I’m nothing if not a greedy bastard: for that reason, I’m gonna be holding out for another Stitches. Serious or funny…flip a coin. As long as McMahon’s next film displays the same delirious level of invention and imagination as his killer clown opus, I’ll be that proverbial kid in that proverbial candy store.