“Atheist searching for a miracle”
There’s nothing like a good cold open to set the mood and David Spaltro‘s In the Dark gets out of the gate running. It introduces us to Joan (Catherine Cobb Ryan) and Bethany Mills (Grace Folsom)—a seemingly wholesome mother and daughter duo connected by love and respect. The former has returned home from a long shift at work and the latter’s stuck in “the zone” painting her canvases into the wee hours of night. There’s relief in Joan’s face, but we don’t yet know why. Something happened to Bethany for her existence in that basement to warrant a look saying so much with so little. Suddenly the radio turns on, a shadowy creature appears, and a scream turns their idyllic world upside down.
Spaltro’s follow-up to his effective sophomore drama Things I Don’t Understand, one needn’t look further than the polished opening title sequence to notice an increase in production value by comparison. This proves a welcome detail because delving into the horror genre with demonic possession at its center requires some quality effects work to invest the audience into character emotion and not cheap artifice. While Spaltro and his team definitely upped the ante to excel at the scares and make-up in darkened spaces, his talkie indie sensibility remains. Some of the film’s best scenes are of two women conversing to expose hidden truths about themselves and the existence of the supernatural. Whether skeptic against believer or human versus demon, the dialogue is as potent as the visuals.
The strength of these interactions help us look past any performance issues that may arise as well as what’s perhaps too overt a message about the bond between mother and daughter that’s mirrored in three separate relationships. Folsom’s talent as the chilling centerpiece everyone else revolves around isn’t a mistake as our believing in her creepy smiles under the influence of the evil tearing her Bethany apart is crucial to accepting psych major Veronica Carpenter’s (Lynn Justinger) eventual conversion from staunch critic to frightened witness of the impossible. Veronica’s transformation is as vast a change as Bethany’s going from meek artist to the psychopathic reveler in suffering seeking to permanently crossover into our world. If she can learn to believe in Hell, so too can we.
Veronica’s guide into the unexplained is renowned expert Lois Kearne (Fiona Horrigan), affectionately coined “Miracle Killer” by her field due to the number of cases she’s debunked. This is a refreshing development in a genre quick to have its experts be believers to an annoying degree of comical geekery or pretentious ego. Lois is neither of these. She’s rational and understands the majority of potential supernatural phenomenon is made-up with the rest coherently explainable. Only three cases out of two hundred gave her pause to accept the hand of something or someone beyond our realm. The third left an indelible mark upon her, its tragic end unshakeable. And while she can’t help be patronizing to the Mills’ upon meeting them, everything starts feeling very familiar very soon.
It’s the secrets that Veronica and Bethany hold tightly to their chests that ultimately prove the lynchpins to the action. Whether or not Lois can successful exorcize this young girl or not is almost inconsequential when compared to the catharsis these other two women must endure along the way. They each harbor darkness—stemming mostly from their mothers—that makes them susceptible to this demon’s wiles. Both seek a chance at redemption, but the price of forgiveness may be too steep. The only opportunity they have, though, is to fight the evil inside and accept that they are more than their pasts or genes. They can conquer their fears and be better people for it, but first they must exit the Mills’ basement with their lives.
For this reason the moments pitting the two together are In the Dark‘s most effective. Possessed Bethany is able to play recordings of Veronica’s mother at her—both from the past and present as she languishes in the brimstone of Hell—and its effect resonates. This creature toys with her skepticism, slowly dismantling it with jabs that strike close to home until she’s nothing but a crumpled mess of tears. It knows her fears and throws them in her face with a smirk. To go from Justinger’s smug superiority at the beginning when interviewing Lois for her thesis to the ball of nerves at this demon’s feet is exactly what she and we need. A little comeuppance along with her eye-opening recognition proves a welcomingly humanizing development.
What truly got me excited during the film, however, were Spaltro’s horror techniques. He never goes overboard with the gore—budgetary constraints obvious a cause—because he doesn’t need to for success. There’s a definite old school 70s and 80s vibe to the aesthetic with shaking doors blocking out a bright glow, wind coming from nowhere to billow demonic Bethany’s hair, and quick flashes of violence whether a pencil-stabbed hand or melted eyes showing how the aftermath is more important than the actual graphic deed. Each scare is authentic, built up from tension and mystery rather than obligatory in-your-face theatrics. Spaltro shows admiration to the genre and a keen sense of restraint, enough so that I didn’t even mind the epilogue’s tired trope chased away by fire.