“I didn’t like what I saw”
It’s summer 2003 and the entire Northeast is about to go Dark. I lost seeing Radiohead as a result of that blackout—my tickets for the weekend’s Toronto show postponed a few months later to an exam night the next semester. Some people had it better with nothing going awry besides losing some perishables in the fridge; other had it worse. How much worse is up to the people who experienced it or those like screenwriter Elias and director Nick Basile seeking to use that memorable first evening for the setting of a psychological thriller. To Kate Naylor (Whitney Able) the never-ending darkness proves the final step for her already deteriorating mind to snap. And the only person she has to truly fear during the process is herself.
The filmmakers seize the opportunity to turn that event into fodder for an isolation horror by filling the environment with some very trusting people who probably should know better. I’m not talking about the potential threats that are rendered puppy dogs almost as soon as we meet them—Kate’s next door neighbor John (Brendan Sexton III) and her flirtatious target for attention at the bar (Michael Eklund‘s Benoit). No, the person who should feel the most guilt for what eventually happens is Kate’s girlfriend Leah (Alexandra Breckenridge). Her love has not only just moved in, but she’s coming off a suicide attempt and acting as though more trouble is forthcoming. But Leah has family to visit and Kate declines the invite, leaving her all alone.
I enjoyed the first half of Dark as it sets up its players. We witness the tumult Kate battles inside herself during the first scene. She and Leah are having sex with the latter softly kissing and the former begging to be choked. There’s disconnect between them that apparently didn’t used to exist before. Details are soon gleaned to reveal Kate as an ex-model, the job providing the impetus for her to move north to NYC. Leah was her photographer and they fell in love. The lifestyle began to eat away at the starlet, though, and she retreated into her worsening depression. She hated how she looked; hated the attention. So she tried to become “uglier” or as only catty mean girls could say under their breath: “fat”.
This state of mind led to her descent and Leah somehow pulled her head above water in time to desert her on a fateful trip ready to let Kate spiral back towards oblivion. These feelings cause Kate to push her girlfriend away and embrace the affection of strangers—men—giving her looks she no longer believes she deserves. Loneliness sparks her into unpacking, nostalgia into procrastination until the sun disappears and anxiety mounts. Down to the bar she goes, a conversation with Benoit struck. And as soon as she begins feeling comfortable again with lies of being unattached and healthy serving as her calling card, the darkness in her mind falls too with the sun. What’s insane is that everyone she meets turns out being a perfect gentleman.
Well, that last line might be deceiving considering one is a stoner who forgets which apartment is his and stares way too long at Kate. Another is a potential stalker with shadowy menace disguising empathetic compassion. And the idiots catcalling her and joking about sexual abuse are idiots—they just never actually try acting on their threats. Unfortunately, Kate is in no state to decipher this luck during chaos or cultivate happiness as a result of it. She instead sees everyone as an enemy regardless, prospective murderers lurking in the darkness to pounce when least expected. Somehow this suicidal depressive not only wants to live now, she’s wielding a hammer to ensure she does. This 180 doesn’t quite mesh as coherent evolution, but we go with it.
We hope the second half’s pitch-black veil will push her back down into the depths of her psychological disorder and perhaps hallucinate monsters or put herself in a situation where death is her only escape. But that’s not what happens. Delusions might—I’m clueless as to where Benoit disappears to upon resurfacing so maybe he never actually did—because bangs on the door and twisting doorknobs begin to deafen her eardrums. It all obviously affects Kate onscreen with Able falling to pieces before our eyes, but very little happens to stir tension-filled excitement in us. We’re pretty much watching her fight shadows, waiting for something to happen and waiting and waiting and waiting. By the time something finally does occur, we no longer care.
The desire to set-up dread simply allows us time to realize there aren’t any threats but those in Kate’s mind. This in turn leads to our guessing the only possible outcome of the nightmare, its eventual arrival introduced with a whimper rather than surprise. Despite Able’s authentic despondency and schizophrenic fractures, we stop wondering what might happen to her because she becomes the only character capable of violence. We wonder if poor John will be killed and anticipate finding kind-hearted Benoit dead in the bathtub instead—gruesome flashbacks showing Kate’s fugue state making it possible. You can imagine my disappointment when the sun rises and nothing except the climactic crack occurred. Basile and Elias supply ample build-up, but the payoff hardly deserves the effort.