From the Dark (2014)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2015-04-07 15:04

Written and Directed by: Conor McMahon
Starring: Niamh Algar, Stephen Cromwell, and Ged Murray

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

Pray for dawn.

Can vampires even be scary anymore? Forgetting even their rampant overexposure from the past decade alone, they’ve been molded into forlorn, romantic figures for so long that it’s easy to forget that these things are supposed to be fucking monsters. With From the Dark, director Conor McMahon attempts to reclaim the bloodsuckers for the domain of actual horror by harking back to Eastern European folklore that imagines vampires as undead creatures looking to feast upon the living—and nothing more. From the Dark is nothing if not a fierce, direct, and economical creature feature that answers any questions surrounding the vampire’s vitality with a resounding “yes.”

A prologue on the Irish moors sets the dreary, isolated scene and captures an old man futzing around in the dirt on the verge of dusk. As he continues digging, this farmer unwittingly awakens a corpse that proceeds to bite him in the neck. A flashback takes us to separate events earlier that day, where young couple Sarah (Niamh Algar) and Mark (Stephen Cromwell) are headed for a rural retreat. When their car breaks down, Mark heads off on foot and stumbles upon the man from the prologue, who is now bleeding out in his own house. Startled, he returns to collect Sarah in the hopes of taking shelter and finding help for the farmer. Instead, they find themselves under attack from both the farmer—who has now turned into a ravenous flesh-eater—and a bloodthirsty monster lurking outside.

In what amounts to a departure for McMahon—whose previous efforts Dead Meat and Stitches have been glib, tongue-in-cheek splatterfests—From the Dark is a lean, mean exercise in repurposing familiar genre touchstones. It’s essentially a cabin-in-the-woods affair, only it’s situated in a desolate countryside, a setting McMahon highlights early and often to enhance the spooky mood with stark, naturally-lit photography. Inky, black shadows and eerie, moonlit fog dominate the film’s palette, while McMahon’s rich imagery broods with menace. From the Dark looks every bit the part of a rural nightmare, where danger prowls about in every shadow. Fittingly, the only defense our characters have is whatever light they have at their disposal.

In this case, the creature is never explicitly called a vampire (the film is so economical that it hardly establishes much of anything beyond the bare minimum: a guy, a girl, and a monster), but its aversion to light and its penchant for neck-biting make it obvious enough. And if it isn’t obvious enough, McMahon fashions the monster in the image of the most famous cinematic vampires in Max Schreck’s Count Orlock. While it’s largely confined to the dark, its hunched-over profile, elongated nails, and bat-like ears recall the vampire progenitor, an appearance that functions as both homage and cleverly echoes the primal, sickly terror these creatures once represented. This is the vampire as an unrelenting, honest-to-god monster, and it defines the film’s cutthroat, efficient approach.

For the most part, From the Dark maintains its speed. A saggy stretch where Sarah and Mark hole up in a nearby house to fend off the monster borders on tedious and threatens to kill the momentum, but it recovers nicely when a startling turn of events ratchets up the tension. Without spoiling, let’s just say From the Dark nicely inverts the damsel-in-distress trope by having Sarah shoulder the film from the midpoint and beyond, where it takes on the tenor of a ruthlessly efficient and gruesome survival thriller. Sarah endures once ghastly encounter after another with the beast, which leaves her increasingly worse for wear (not to mention with less body parts after a particularly harrowing bit of self-preservation). Algar emerges as a terrific heroine: she’s capable and tough, yet somewhat vulnerable and human enough in a role that echoes the likes of fellow feminine ass-kickers Sigourney Weaver and Shauna Macdonald.

But just when it looks like From the Dark will be content to lapse into an Evil Dead clone, complete with its blood-soaked Ash mowing through demonic forces, it slows down just enough to survey her trauma. We don’t learn much about her and Mark—only that they’ve been together long enough that marriage has become a topic of discussion that he especially likes to avoid. During the course of their ordeal, the couple is forced to confront the fragility of their relationship in a rather predictable way; less predictable is how delicately it handles a familiar scenario. Any romantic leanings expected of vampire films are fleeting and eventually buried beneath mounds of decay and dust: you sense something slightly unnerving in the film’s final, ambiguous shot, which leaves audiences with the impression that the only romantic gesture left would result in complete oblivion.

After leaving an impression on the festival circuit last year, From the Dark has made its home video debut courtesy of Dark Sky’s Blu-ray release. The disc features a stunning transfer with sharp details and deep, solid black levels, and viewers have an option of both 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-MA tracks. Subtitles are thankfully available for those who sometimes have trouble working through thick Irish accents. A commentary with McMahon, a behind-the-scenes feature, and a theatrical trailer supplement a nice release for a cool film that puts vampires back in their rightful place, however briefly that might be. Here’s hoping more films take a cue from McMahon: if we’re going to be stuck with vampires, I’d at least prefer the company of some we haven’t dealt with dozens of times.

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