Friday, June 15, 2018

Review: Dark Vale

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet
Dark Vale
Written and directed by Jason M.J. Brown
Wild Eye Releasing / MVD Visual
90 minutes, 2017 / 2018

Let me start off with the obvious, in case there are any questions: this British film is not the video game, and has no relation to it. Honestly, I’ve never played the game, but now I have seen the film, so let’s move along.

In our household, we tend to watch a lot of British television mysteries. In England, they have a different sense of the temporal, such as with literature such as Dickens, which has a history of an author being paid by the word rather by action. It could take a whole paragraph for someone to open a door (for example, it could be “He reached for the door knob, his hand hesitating over the round globe of metal. The coldness on his hand felt like…” etc.; that kinda thing). Of course, this isn’t true of everything from the Isles, as with films such as 28 Days Later... (2002) that is at Mach 10, but generally things take a bit longer there, and I believe it is culturally expected to be that way.

For a non-Brit who is used to Americanized MTV speed editing and shorter attention spans, this can be an issue, something for which I am occasionally guilty as well. This film is closer to the Dickens than the music video in its pacing.

Darren Randall
It’s also a much smaller film in scope of cast. While there are other, peripheral characters that pop in and out occasionally, especially in the mandatory and in this case gratefully expository prologue, this is essentially a two-and-a-half person cast. The main protagonists are a couple, Leah (Cara Middleton – no relation to Kate, I assume, though she does bear a resemblance to Indian actress Priety Zinta) and Tom (Darren Randall); the “half” is the seen-in-spurts murderous ghost of Lady Lucy (Chloe Clarke).

The first third of the film is the audience getting to “know” the couple who have been together for a while, but only now just talking about moving in together. They go on a vacation, and on the way back, their car breaks down on a backwoods road in… The Vale (da da-da-DA) of the title. They walk to the house down the road and start going through stuff, and when they hear footsteps in the hall, they hide. Wait, what? If I was in someone’s house, especially if I didn’t know them, (a) I would call out asking if anyone was there, (b), I would not go through their possessions, and (c) if I heard footsteps I would check to see if it was the owner, not go slinking under furniture, especially if I didn’t know the Lady Lucy legend. This felt either disingenuous to me at least, fookin’ rude at most. But what do I know; I live in Canada, eh?

The ssssssllllllloooooowwwww pace (note that this is an observation, not a complaint) gives the viewer a chance to think about what is happening and to notice small things. For example, Ben walks into a cathedral and the candles blink on. It’s obvious to tell, however, that the film is just shown backwards due to the wafting candle smoke going downward. Still, a nice and easy way to get a decent effect.

I’m tempted to call the film arty, and on some level it is, but it is not so overpowering that it gets in the way to make the film obtuse. Don’t get me wrong, I have some issues with the it, which is far from perfect, and I’ll get into that a bit more in a mo, but the level of art actually aides in the texture and mood of the film, especially considering it appears to be all shot on a single camera. I do believe this is what one might call an old fashioned gothic ghost story, rather than an Insidious style of shock-a-thon.

The plot borrows liberally from the likes of Wuthering Heights and the first season of “American Horror Story.” And like Cathy and Heathcliff, Leah is annoyingly needy and whiny, and Tom is overly macho and overbearing. Perhaps there’s a bit of Lost, too, if The Vale is some kind of purgatory?

Thing is, by the end I had, in the words of a character from the TV show “Girls,” so many follow-up questions, even trivial ones that built up in their mere volume, such as (and I’m trying to pick some that won’t be spoilers) how does a light, tan backpack stay clean after years of use; who stocked the basement with that much food and tea candles; and how did they manage to get out when our protagonists are stuck there for years? And why would a ghost be scared of fire when it had nothing to do with her death? And why did Tom only run into that guy who gave him instructions once? And why would the footprints be seen walking towards the flour spread on the ground rather than from? And how could a walkie-talkie or mobile phone still be charged after an extended period? I could go on for a couple of more paragraphs.

Cara Middleton
Perhaps my post-graduate education has failed me, but I just don’t get so much of this. Maybe it’s artier that it appears and I’m getting lost in the zeitgeist of the whole enchilada? There are successes as I can see in that it is atmospheric and with rare exception, it’s pretty gray other than the occasionally sunny day, which stands out for that reason

As for the nitty gritty for those interested, there is almost no blood, a small body count, and no shots of naughty bits, which isn’t necessary to keep my attention, but for those who keep track, well, there ya go. Actually, considering the use of mood, having those elements may actually take away what they are going for in the long run, and I believe it was the right choice on all accounts.

Along with a whole bunch of trailers (including for this film) that have the general theme of people going to a building where there are malevolent ghosts, there are two other extras. One is a 28:17 “Making Of” which is essentially the setting up of shots, with any real interview with cast members (Randall and Clarke) starting at 13:00 and lasting the most interesting 3 minutes of the piece. It is, however, the only chance to get a decent view of what Clarke looks like, even if under the white pancake make-up and a veil.

Last up is the full length director’s commentary, including Randall and executive producer Martin Farmilo. It’s okay, nothing very earthshaking, but some good stories about the personalities, the shooting, some explaining what you’re looking at, and a bit of self-backslapping; though personally, I would have liked to hear more about motivations of actions onscreen.

The film looks good, and there are some smart moments, such as Leah walking around in the dark with a lantern where you can only see her and the light, and rather than popping in the ghost where you expect it, they hold off. That’s a wise choice, of which there are quite a few. This has gotten some really nice reviews, but overall I was hoping for a bit more, I guess. Not a bad film, but there are a few gaps in thought.

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