THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Mickey Keating's Darling runs only 75 minutes, yet it's got more genuine horror than most fright flicks that run longer. This is a dark, stunning work that creates psychological terror to match its most shocking moments of physical violence. Initial scenes employ some familiar horror elements, but Darling finds unique ways of utilizing them as it goes on. In other words, once you think you've got the picture figured out, it goes in a whole other direction, just to mess with you.
Lauren Ashley Carter (who was so good in The Woman and Jug Face) gives a superb performance as Darling, a shy young woman who gets a job house-sitting for an off-puttingly formal woman, identified only as Madame (Sean Young). The brownstone is a little creepy but otherwise normal, save for a door at the end of a hallway that Darling is admonished not to open. She doesn't need to. Not long after taking the gig, she's haunted by bloody, disturbing hallucinations. Her personality changes, especially after hooking up with a guy (Brian Morvant) at a local bar. The movie keeps you guessing as to whether Darling has been possessed, is simply suffering some sort of psychotic breakdown, or both. Either way, blood is shed.
Darling contains very little exposition. It opens with her taking the job, so there's no explanation of who she is or how she comes to be employed by Madame. Neither is there any overt discussion of whatever sinister force may be in the house, aside from a brief mention that the previous caretaker jumped to her death, thereby creating the vacancy Darling fills. In most movies, this lack of backstory would be a detriment. Here, it adds to the eerieness. The absence of expository information causes us to lean in, to scan the frame for details. It also forces us to watch Darling with great scrutiny. Everything we need to know about her is right there in Lauren Ashley Carter's face. We come to sense the character's vulnerabilities and insecurities. We get inside her head in a way that wouldn't be possible if the movie's dialogue simply told us everything there was to know about her.
This is not a conventional horror film. Darling is not so much about what happens as it is about how things happen. Keating creates a very chilling mood that sucks you in, making the presence of evil virtually palpable. The movie is shot in stark, ominous black and white. Strobe lights and graphic, almost subliminal images are intercut with the main action at times when we do not expect them. Certain objects are photographed in shadow or out of focus to enhance their mystery. There is heavy manipulation of sound, with whispering voices and echoes on the soundtrack, as well as dramatic shifts from silence to noise. At one key point, Keating even uses an upside-down shot of New York City to suggest Darling's world inverting.
Perhaps the most daring technique the movie employs is to have Darling look directly at the camera at certain points. She's looking right at us, essentially suggesting that we, too, are possessed by whatever has its teeth in her, be it demon or mental health disorder. (Or, perhaps a demon preying on a mental health disorder.) More disturbingly, it might be a case where we are possessed by her. The darker Darling's behavior gets, the more we can't stop watching her. Does that make us complicit in her actions? One could totally interpret Darling as a metaphor for our inherent fascination with violence, with the horrible things people are capable of, and with evil itself.
Darling joins the ranks of It Follows, The Babadook, The Witch, and Goodnight Mommy as an example of original, deeply atmospheric horror that has no need for cheap shocks or tired theatrics. Armed with a pitch-black sense of humor, a confidently-executed nightmarish style, and a dazzling turn from Lauren Ashley Carter, the movie works its way into your psyche and gradually frays your nerves.
If you love horror, Darling is a film you should not miss under any circumstances.
( 1/2 out of four)
Darling is unrated, but contains language, nudity, and graphic violence. The running time is 1 hour and 15 minutes.
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