By Billy Huntsman
I often find myself despairing of the current state of the film industry. I find it depressing to live in such a time when a movie with the scope and ambition of Interstellar is largely ignored at the Academy Awards, while a masturbatory effort such as Birdman is bombarded with praise and accolades.
The fact that mediocre movies get even more mediocre reboots – Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, to name a couple – and vapid tentpole movies get seemingly endless sequels – The Avengers, Transformers, to name a few more – is disheartening, almost to the point where I find myself wanting to say, “I give up on movies.”
Most depressing of all, though, is the state of the horror movie industry. With campy though guiltily enjoyable contributions such as Sharknado, dime-a-dozen flicks such as The Purge and Paranormal Activity, and the downright despicable existence of such a film as Unfriended, perhaps no other genre of film is in such disrepair as horror.
Imagine my delight then when I recently stumbled upon the hidden gem of a horror movie From the Dark on Netflix. The tab for it on that website is at once arresting: a filthy blonde seemingly entrenched in earth and darkness holding up a dim lantern. The quality of the tab is such as to put a potential viewer in mind of the horror movie posters of the 1970s and early ‘80s: The Exorcist, The Omen, The Thing.
Still more ensnaring, for me and probably for a number of others as well, is the fact From the Dark is set in Ireland.
I love Ireland and have studied its history and culture for a number of years, and have often thought its landscapes – particularly the picturesque flatlands of the center of the country, as well as the rocky barren west – are ideal settings for horror movies.
Unfortunately, the horror industry at large has not tapped into such settings, and what few projects have – Assault of Darkness, Shrooms – have done so with tongue-in-cheek mindsets.
But From the Dark sets itself in County Offaly, an area of the Republic of Ireland riddled with unsettling, misty boglands, and from the start the film takes itself seriously.
A lone peat farmer wakens something (just between you and me, Abhartach, a horrific character in Irish mythology) buried in the earth and is soon after attacked, but not killed, by it.
Later, a charming couple – whose accents, I’m fairly certain, mark them as from the Dublin area – travel through the vicinity of the peat farmer’s fields and home when their car gets stuck in the mud.
Not unforeseeably, the car is so stuck that they must call for a towtruck, which means they must venture through the heavy forests and then the expansive open fields beyond in the hopes of finding some homestead with a landline, because cellular reception here is not existent.
Oh, and the darkness is just coming down and there are no cities, towns, or villages for miles all around.
They soon find the peat farmer’s home, appearing empty. They find his telephone disconnected. And then they find the farmer, swooning and unresponsive to their inquiries.
He has a bloody wound on his neck and moves with the stealth and litheness of a feline – make that a ghost-cat. He loses none of his furtiveness, only gains in fulsomeness, when his exterior turns gray and scaly, his head bald, ears Spock-like, altogether not unlike one of the cave-dwelling creatures from The Descent.
This monster terrorizes the couple throughout the farm and fields, its only weakness? Any sort of light, from the weak flame of a kitchen match to the blaring headlights of a tractor.
The film is a treasure in a number of ways. Firstly, it knows how to build suspense, an art lost upon most modern-day horror movies. Scarce are the occurrences of cheap scares – shocks to the nervous system by sudden orchestral crescendos, inevitably accompanied by a monster or murderer leaping into frame from outside the audience’s view.
There are few of this type of scare in From the Dark because the filmmakers know what they are doing, they don’t need to resort to such novice methods. They implement the common horror movie tropes – couple stranded in the middle of nowhere, no cell service – in order to set the stakes of the story, then carefully craft each scene.
The film has more in common with Murnau’s Nosferatu and Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs than with any modern horror film. The characters’ obsession with finding one source of life-preserving light after another is pulse-pounding for a viewer when it should be mind-numbingly trite.
Each development in the film occurs organically, nothing is contrived, another bit of praise to set From the Dark above modern horror. When Sara – the blonde – finds several candles and puts them in a candelabrum, it deftly enriches the Stoker-esque ambience of the film, while also speaking to Sara’s remarkable intelligence – more candles means more light means more safety.
Conceivably, some viewers might find the film frustrating for its lack of candor about the creature’s origins. I would urge you: do not get hung up on rationalizing.
The film explicitly gives no answers – though there are answers for those who will look closely – because it asks no questions. Neither Sara nor Mark question or try to refute the creature’s existence – a sign of desperation, of trying to lengthen the run time, in other horror movies – they simply accept the creature for what it is, a monster seeking to kill them.
From the Dark is as concerned with the lower portions of the iceberg as a Hemingway novel. The film is not introspective, as introspection is a product of evolved intelligence. From the Dark is primitive, as the hunt for light against the dark is one of the most primordial of human activities.