THE DARK RED
Directed by Dan Bush
If there’s been any subgenre that’s come to define the last few years in horror, ‘it could be magic or mental illness’ films aside, it’s ones about women in trouble that nobody believes/ listens to. Dan Bush’s latest, The Dark Red, is another accomplished but ultimately forgettable movie in this mould. This time around the woman is Sybil (Billingsley), a schizophrenic patient. She was committed to a psychiatric institution following the loss of a fetus she claims got torn from her body. Taking sessions with the aptly named Dr Deluce (Scott), she accounts the events that lead up to this, including her ‘dream’-like romance with David (Byrne). On top of this, she also claims to be burdened with the ability to read people’s thoughts.
Interestingly, with the use of cults and underground lairs, the sort of tale Sybil is telling harken back to the Satanic Panic era of the 80s/ 90s. During which several high profile, but entirely unsubstantiated, accusations of allegedly repressed ritual abuse hit courts. These cases have since come to exemplify how human memory can be prone to distortion or confabulation, and here it is suggested they represent aspects of a collective unconscious. On a related point, the psychologist in me was also glad to see more than just a passing reference made to the reconstructive memory framework, i.e. the notion that the act of retrieving a memory is creative instead of literal. So the resultant mental image comes as much from our expectations and rules of thumb as what actually happened. Rather than it being like rewinding a tape. Sybil alludes to this with the well-observed comparison of a painter painting the same scene repeatedly. How sure can we be about life’s little details? Maybe it was raining. Still, despite paying lip-service to these ideas, a significant fault with this film is we’re never given much reason to question anything Sybil tells us. For all the setup I found myself expecting a plot twist that never came.
Part of this comes down to the medium – after all, it’s presented as a horror film throughout, so it’s unlikely to be a non-horror solution. But mostly it’s because, some nice bits of jargon aside, Dr Deluce is written more as a narrative obstacle to be overcome than a person. This criticism is not to say there isn’t a functional game element to her scenes with Sybil since their talks do much of the emotional heavy lifting. But a game is pretty much all it gets to be. Deluce’s approach is nuanced, but she lacks the psychological depth necessary to make her part dramatically engaging in her own right. Without that we have no reason to think her interpretation of events carries equal weight. This problem maybe isn’t helped by how darn good Billingsley is in comparison to the other cast members. It’s not that they’re bad per se since there’s not a poor performance among them. It’s just the leading lady is better, doing the sort of job that makes you want to see her with compelling material. With a remarkable amount of restraint, she pitches Sybil as someone who has undergone a hell of a lot of trauma but won’t be broken by it.
Still, without much ambiguity then the success of the piece comes down to how compelling we find her story. And honestly, I’m a bit torn here. Conceptually it’s intriguing, but its delivery is both too packed and too shallow: lots of ingredients, but you can’t taste them individually. Maybe the most intriguing element is the telepathy, with Sybil warming to David because his thoughts were foggy – in contrast to the usual pools “of red water” which overwhelm her. But it is underexplored, with a lot of room to further look at the everyday frustrations of being unable to avoid the mental lives of others. The romance aspect is also subject to far more telling than showing, with the flashbacks feeling scant compared to the significance Sybil gives them. We get standout bits, like when she meets his parents, though it is not enough of a foundation for what happens next. At 100 minutes I appreciate it’s already on the longer side for horror, though I could have gladly taken another 15 minutes or so to flesh things out.
Likewise, during its final third The Dark Red transitions into a rushed, and underwhelming, revenge flick (complete with po-faced prep montage). Given the tone until this point, I wasn’t expecting high-octane thrills or a roaring rampage. Still, I was waiting for a sense of suspense to develop that never quite materialised. I reckon a big part of this comes down to the baddies, who are neither characterised well nor built up as much of a threat. As such, is maybe the point in the film when we feel the least scared for Sybil. It’s frustrating, as their motivation is pretty cool, if not hugely original, and ties together the film’s many strands with a fresh twist on a whole different sort of horror – something much needed in an increasingly saturated subgenre.
The Dark Red is out now on FrightFest Presents… It is available on VOD.