THE DARK WITHIN
Directed by David Keith Ryan
Since moving back to Aberdeenshire I’ve gotten to know its countryside well. As such, if anyone wants to get in touch about nice walks or good views let me know. However, one place I definitely won’t be recommending is the eerie cabin in which most of the latest movie from local writer/ director David Ryan Keith takes place. Far off the beaten track, and complete with dilapidated brick walls and a sad wooden swing, it’s a location just right for a horror.
Marcus (Flannery, who co-writes), a troubled man with psychic powers, goes there to shed light on some blank spots in his own backing story: including what happened to his parents. His psychiatrist figures it’d be therapeutic for him to spend time in this small, secluded house to confront parts of his past. Her intentions seem good; we meet him at an obviously troubled time in his life. His ex-partner has had to take a restraining order on him and he’s on probation. On arrival, he looks around for anything that may be a clue as to better understand his blurry childhood. This soon results in him coming across a suspicious green serum that he promptly downs (a necessary plot point that I wish had been better contextualised). This seems to set in motion a number of spooky events – involving grotesque, skinless forms that available images don’t do justice – as he fights both literal and metaphorical demons.
There’s a lot to like about The Dark Within. From its ominous opening, that uneases you into the process with an intriguing scenario and a contagious sense of dread, it’s a film that makes you want to know more. This is essential for a movie that’s core narrative drive is a small, confined mystery. As Marcus searches for answers in both the cabin and the past its come to represent, it’s important that we come to care about the answers as he does. Thankfully those that we get are also satisfying. I don’t mean to downplay the horror elements of the movie, as The Dark Within has plenty of those. Some set-pieces have been done before, yet they’re well-crafted and are made to feel fresh: particularly one involving a phone. There’s more than a bit of an Evil Dead feel about the remote cabin in the woods, and the bleak rural Aberdeenshire landscape makes for a menacing setting. I’d also like to give a special mention to Niall Mathewson whose sinister score hums away in the background, adding to the anxiety throughout. The creatures he hallucinates are also often straight out of nightmares, with gruesome makeup and some original designs.
Yet something that films concerned with bending reality often struggle with is attaching an emotional weight to what should be big events, like seeing characters dying or being attacked by monsters. The Dark Within is no exception. The core puzzle stays interesting throughout. However, during the second half the hallucinatory parts, along with some of the scares, lose a lot of their dramatic impact. Each is staged well enough since David Ryan Keith is a skilled director. But the film is not the sum of its parts, and as it slumps into a predictable routine it becomes less engaging. Marcus will see something scary and either jolt himself awake or learn it isn’t true before something similar happens again and so on. Still, it mostly recovers again in the closing scenes, when the renewed focus on story results in some rewarding reveals (even if the very final beats didn’t work for me). It helps that Flannery does such a good job conveying Marcus’ mental unravelling, with a performance that goes from unhinged befuddlement through paranoia and eventually to complete disintegration. Still, too often in the mid-section, it feels as if his character is there to look startled and react to things we know probably won’t have long-term consequences for the story.
Overall The Dark Within is a decent outing, and some important pacing issues aside makes for a welcome slice of Scottish horror. As such, I think genre fans will likely get a lot from it. Even if the Aberdeenshire tourist board won’t be thanking him.