Jenn Wexler's debut feature film examines what separates the city and the rural while also looking at how goddamn tough it is being a woman.
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.
No Telling. 1991. Directed by Larry Fessenden. Screenplay by Larry Fessenden & Beck Underwood.
Starring Miriam Healy-Louie, Stephen Ramsey, David Van Tieghem, Richard Topol, Ashley Arcement, Robert Brady, Susan Doukas, Ward Burlingham, J.J. Clark, Stanley Taub, Francois Lampietti, and John Van Couvering.
Glass Eye Pix.
Not Rated. 93 minutes.
Larry Fessenden has long been a filmmaker in which I’ve had intense interest. There’s a quality about all his films, no matter how far apart thematically or plot-wise they may be, I’m consistently drawn in by and after every watch, regardless which movie, I usually find his stories on my mind for days.
The first time I saw a Fessenden film was about a decade ago – more like 11 years ago, to be exact. I saw his flick Wendigo on a whim. It was being screened by some group in St. Catharine’s, Ontario where I went to school at the time. There’s a mysterious and eerie air to that movie I couldn’t compare to anything else, at least nothing I’d seen at that point. Not only that, I was going to film school and his filmmaking struck me as such a beautiful, natural process. After seeing more of his work, eventually getting the chance to see Habit, Fessenden became a beacon of light in the indie world. Because his movies, while low budget compared to Hollywood, didn’t feel low budget. He makes use of interesting locations, as well as talented actors to make all the horrific and sometimes completely terrifying aspects of his writing come across.
No Telling is perhaps some of his best work, honestly. Though it isn’t a comment on his skills – he’s always improving, like any true artist. But I find most interesting here the weight and execution of what he’s getting across in this film. Plus, there’s a lovably indie quality to this film which gives it a subtle, special quality. Certainly Fessenden doesn’t appeal to everyone as it is. At the same time, if any of his movies might divide people it is this one – paced with a wonderfully slow burn, there are some intensely gruesome moments in terms of animals; something a portion of people appear to have trouble with. Either way, be prepared: it’s a great non-conventional horror movie.
Geoffrey and Lillian Gaines (Stephen Ramsey/Miriam Healy-Louie) move into a a house during the summer, out in the countryside. Geoffrey is a scientist. He does top-secret work in his barn where a lab is setup. His artist wife Lillian becomes friendly with an activist named Alex Vine (David Van Tieghem), which becomes more frequent as time goes on.
Soon enough, though, Lillian begins to wonder what it is exactly her husband does out in the laboratory. Some days she barely sees him at all. Others, he’s there yet not really, or he sweats uncontrollably, nervous and awkward around any other people. Once Lillian manages to get into the secretive lab, she sees pictures of dissected animals, she finds one of the old traps, and their relationship begins to crumble.
In the same vein as Mary Shelley and her mad Dr. Frankenstein, Fessenden’s No Telling pits man against nature, man against man, and even woman again man.
The basic look of this film is actually incredible. Funny enough, the cinematographer David Shaw actually did nothing after this movie, which is a shame. Though, he did operate Steadicam on a film in’95. It’s crazy because one of the first things I enjoyed about No Telling was the look. The Blu ray comes courtesy of the Larry Fessenden Collection, only recently released; also comes with Habit, Wendigo, and the Last Winter, as well as a ton of extras including short films, music videos and lots of commentary. Really this Blu ray collection is a fucking treasure.
No Telling‘s audio and picture are both unbelievably perfect. The exterior shots are something to behold, then there are great contrasted shots of shadowy goodness inside the barn-laboratory and even at times in the house itself. Again, I’m so amazed Shaw didn’t go on to do more work as cinematographer. Between him and Fessenden there is a wealth of beautifully composed shots, interesting camerawork (angles particularly) and an all around nice style.
Obviously, when you look at this film’s alternate title The Frankenstein Complex, you can easily see – even without doing so – there are roots of this story growing out of Mary Shelley’s original novel Frankenstein. Lots of interesting things happening in this movie, courtesy of the tight screenplay from Fessenden and Beck Underwood. Naturally, this comes out from the young doctor and his experiments. However, the movie takes it further into the idea of man playing god using animals as his subject. You can clearly see how Fessenden feels about animal experimentation; at the same time, he makes a good point for the side of the scientist, as well. As I mentioned earlier, there are a couple particularly savage shots where Geoffrey (Ramsey) is in his barn-lab doing work that might get touchy for anyone sensitive seeing animals in horror movies. But this only serves to create a weird character in Geoffrey, the heinous doctor working out in the isolated farmlands on who knows what sort of mental medical experiments.
The whole film is very heavy in theme. We watch this doctor and his wife sort of spiral into a descent towards a place where life is dark and dangerous. To compliment such darkness, again it’s the camerawork and the style of Fessenden which make it all compelling. One specific shot I can’t stop thinking of comes after Geoffrey puts a few small metal traps out to catch animals around the property – as Lillian is upstairs, the snap of a trap comes in the distance and then a red filter takes over the visuals, slowly cutting and cutting, editing towards shots of a fox (or something similar) baring its teeth, no doubt caught in the trap’s jaws. Very, very effective and such a neat moment. I was caught off-guard, in such a perfect sense. Made my eyes widen and excited me with all its horror. This is only one of the awesome sequences out of this fascinating film.
This is one of my favourite Larry Fessenden films. I’ve seen them all now, especially since getting this collection it’s been easy. 4.5 out of 5 stars, none less. No Telling has a ton of spooky horror, but it isn’t conventional like jumpy stuff. Nor is there a lot of the typical sort of reliance on genre tropes. What Fessenden does here is a create a unique and intensely modern story using Mary Shelley as a very basic framework. Too many seem to pass this off as a mere retelling of Frankenstein. It is so much more. Just take a chance and watch this excellent little indie horror. It will compel and disturb you and surprise you even.