As we move away from faith and superstition and more towards a rational, scientific world, the supernatural and religious horror films need to work harder to have an impact. There is still room for exploration of good and evil and whether otherworldly powers pull those moral strings. In the Dark does it right. It offers a fantastic array of performances and relies on pulling images from the audiences imagination to frighten them, rather than inundate them with effects.
Veronica takes the skeptics approach to her graduate thesis on the existence of paranormal phenomenon. During her initial interview with Lois Kearne, a professor at Columbia and renowned researcher on the subject, she smugly tells the woman that she’s “an atheist hoping for a miracle. ” Kearnes has been called in to investigate over 200 possible instances of hauntings, dismissing all but three of them as natural phenomenon. Despite the graduate student’s pooh-pooing the woman’s infinitesimal rate of proof, Lois insists that true evil exists in the world, with one particular case continuing to haunt her.
Kearnes invites the grad student along for a new case she has just been called to investigate. A mother calls the duo in to see what ails her daughter. After recovering from a car crash that almost killed her, the young woman began to spend all her time in the basement, painting macabre gothic images.
Combining stellar performances from a small cast, judicious use of FX and makeup, and tense showdowns between the afflicted Bethany and the skeptical Veronica, director David Spaltro manages to achieve a lot with very little resources. In her first feature film performance, Grace Folsom delivers chilling moments as the tortured young woman. Folsom brings a feeling of corrupted innocence to the role and her performance draws favorable comparisons to Ashley Bell in The Last Exorcism (which, to me, is still the gold standard for exorcism takes in the past decade).
Exorcism films ca be tricky because the tropes are so familiar, and very few films veer off the beaten path. In The Dark does not break any new ground, but Spaltro does a masterful job in creating and maintaining a creepy atmosphere and in Bethany, a villain that brings a true sense of menace to the forefront.
In particular, In the Dark shines when Bethany, or whatever may possess her, confronts Lois and Veronica with their collective doubts, personal demons and past failures. The girl knows things about Veronica’s present condition and darker past trauma that she has no business knowing. Bethany’s possessed self has a knack for getting under the skin of others, twisting their worst memories and fears into something sinister, desperate and evil. The best “exorcist” moments have little to do with spinning heads and pea soup and everything to do with confirming that the afterlife might be a real and terrible and inescapable place of unending suffering.
Spaltro opens the event with a tense, nerve wracking scene where mother and daughter find themselves under siege by the presence of evil. The fantastic use of light and shadow, combined with a mounting sense of dread and Folsom’s expressions of pure fear establish In The Dark as unnerving right away. The film continues to build on these moments, and while there are some hiccups in the form of less than good digital effects now and again, the practical and human elements of the film deliver a solid supernatural thriller.