Darling. 2015. Directed & Written by Mickey Keating.
Starring Lauren Ashley Carter, Sean Young, Larry Fessenden, Helen Rogers, John Speredakos, Brian Morvant, & Al-Nisa Petty. Glass Eye Pix/Alexander Groupe.
Unrated. 78 minutes.
Mickey Keating is one of my favourite writer-directors over the past few years in indie horror. While the low budget charm of his pictures now and then needs a little boost, most of his work is incredibly engaging because of his willingness to attach a very human element to the themes in which he traffics. His second feature film, Ritual, is what initially drew me to his body of work. That was a great little flick that worked despite any of its flaws. From there he moved on to even bigger dread with the family drama-cum-alien horror Pod – a tight little indie that draws you in then drags you through its terror, including an excellently accomplished alien design that is both eerie and also impressive considering the film’s budget.
This past year Keating released Darling. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white, the film hinges largely on the central performance of Lauren Ashley Carter, whom many fans of independent horror likely remember from Jug Face, a fun, freaky movie in its own right. Using Carter’s talents, the haunting cinematography of Mac Fisken, and his own horrific screenplay, Keating gives us the hypnotic, savage vision of a woman unraveling, the influences of everything from The Shining to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion to Eraserhead shows. But don’t be fooled – any influence on or homage by Keating is only aesthetic. This is a terrifying psychological horror crafted around Carter’s performance and a screenplay that facilitates a descent into paranoid madness.
Darling (Lauren Ashley Carter) is a young woman living in New York City. She’s all on her own in the wide city landscape of darkened alleys, crowded streets, neon lights. Soon, she becomes the caretaker for a large, old mansion with a long history of supposedly being haunted. Madame (Sean Young) sets her up with the job, introduces her to the house, and then Darling is left all alone, once more. Except now she’s there with the house, its possible ghostly or demonic presence lurking all around her.
And as the time whittles on, Darling discovers the whispers in the halls follow her outside into the world. When she meets a man at a bar, one whom she recognizes from somewhere, the mansion’s influence begins taking hold. What follows is a dive headlong into the darkness of the human heart, what trauma and mental anguish can do to a person, as Darling fears she may be losing her mind.
Aside from the obvious black-and-white, the aesthetic of Keating’s film is aided by two major, impressive elements: score and editing.
First, the editing is where I’m reminded of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. It doesn’t rip off anything, but Darling captures pieces of the same mental deterioration Lynch had examined in his 1977 midnight movie classic. With completely different subject matter, editor Valerie Krulfeifer (whose other work includes previous films of Keating; so obviously they work well together) conjures up reflections of Lynch, while not directly taking anything from him. Whereas thematically this movie matches up closely to what Polanski did with Repulsion, the actual atmosphere, to me, feels closer in kin with Eraserhead. The editing helps keep us on edge. Nothing is ever certain for a minute of the film’s runtime, and that’s in big part due to the style of editing. It doesn’t always go a mile a minute, but sometimes it does and that creates the frenetic feeling of being stuck inside Darling’s noggin.
Added to that is both sound design and score. Not all movies get it right, and certainly there are many indie horrors which focus too closely on blood, gore, or exploitation to pay any attention to the aspects that help make a film become beyond mediocre. Composer Giona Ostinelli steeps almost every last moment of Darling in tension. The suspense is incredible, and Ostinelli makes you jump more than Keating and the cinematography together. Even the ringing of a phone becomes something nerve jangling, something that unnerves and throws us off balance. Again, in this way we’re placed directly in the mind of Darling, whose reality isn’t particularly stable. So we’re constantly offset by the score, as well as the sound design. Ostinelli’s music is the sort that burrows beneath your skin and totally keeps you imagining something horrible behind every coming corner. There’s even some nice electronic work steeped into the mix that rears its head now and then, above the uneasy string arrangements and the ominous little piano keys banging around.
But the cinematography – oh, it is gorgeous. Mac Fisken helps Keating achieve a really gorgeous to look at black-and-white picture. Even better, between them both there’s such a beautiful symmetry to many of the shots, it’s hard not to also be reminded of The Shining and Kubrick’s attention to symmetrical shot setups. Moreover, Fisken keeps Carter’s face so perfectly close at many moments, which is another way her perspective becomes the audience’s own, further drawing us into her world of paranoia and terror. There’s this one scene after certain things have happened when Darling’s world is literally turned upside down (as seen in the picture above), it completely captivated my soul; Fisken has the world flipped, the city is upside down, in the black-and-white with a fog in its distance it is one of my favourite shots in any film of recent memory. So beautiful and haunting all at once.
The main performance from Carter is wonderful, delightfully devilish. We disintegrate alongside her character, feeling our brain wash away with hers, too. More and more with each passing scene her grip on what is real and what is not slowly loosens. We’re never sure exactly what has happened, or what is about to happen either. But best of all, Carter genuinely makes the character’s experience one of horrific nature. Seeing her go through the motions of her own mental breakdown helped along by the idea of being caretaker in a haunted mansion is a scary process. Like Polanski’s protagonist in Repulsion or that of The Witch Who Came From the Sea, the boundaries of reality stretch for Darling, opening wide, as we’re tasked with figuring out exactly what’s really happening. Of course those two films are very different, with completely other end results than this one, but their female leads are all highly reminiscent of one another, in an appropriate way. In these movies, Darling included, women are pushed to the brink by the men in their world, or simply the male-dominated world they inhabit. In addition, the main character in Keating’s film contends with a very present ghost story, so the supernatural is an element that can’t totally be written off. It’s up to the audience in the end to decide whether Darling went crazy on her own. Nevertheless, each step on the journey towards the film’s haunting and violent conclusion is paved by a strong, daring performance from Carter.
Another worthwhile film out of Keating. Darling is a 4-star horror. It has a quiet and creepy essence, which at times flares up in horrific, violent ways. But Keating and his band of merry friends create a truly hypnotizing picture with a solid screenplay, black-and-white visuals that will stick with you for days, and a score to compliment all the various macabre scenes to which there will feel there is no end in sight. Definitely my favourite of Keating’s movies so far. Can’t wait for Carnage Park and more of his work.