Starring Lauren Ashley Carter, Brian Morvant, Sean Young
Directed by Mickey Keating
Although it was just seven months ago that director Mickey Keating unleashed his “X-Files”-tinged horror romp Pod to much buzz at South by Southwest, it seems the young director is having a hard time staying away from the city of Austin, Texas. Darling, Keating’s latest headtrip of a flick, recently saw its own premiere at this fall’s Fantastic Fest. Just days following the premiere, worldwide rights to the film were acquired by Screen Media Films for a targeted 2016 release. If this sounds promising enough, we can indeed confirm that Keating’s latest effort most definitely serves to establish him as a daring auteur to watch.
In a striking tonal shift from the sci-fi paranoia of Pod and the minimalist satanic terror of 2013’s Ritual, Darling is, in a nutshell, a gripping slow-burn of a film about a girl who slowly loses her sanity. Lauren Ashley Carter (Pod, The Woman, Jug Face) tackles the titular role of a beautifully mysterious girl hired by Madame, an eerie and well-placed Sean Young, to care for a historic New York home. Before leaving Darling to the home, however, Madame makes it a point to reveal that the previous caretaker tragically committed suicide. Oh, and also that there is a locked room at the end of a long hallway on the top floor that should never be entered. Naturally, Darling spends much of the film exploring the massively creepy home and slowly peeling away its layers with each discovery. Although the setup is a familiar one, what follows is a uniquely mesmerizing journey that leans heavily on tension, paranoia and an uncertainty that eats away at you from the peripheries until you are trapped right there with Darling in the thick of insanity.
Darling is a shorter feature – sitting at a runtime of 78 minutes – but it is also a substantial one, with a pacing that lays the dread on thick with each passing minute as our leading lady’s mental stability starts to come into question. Keating owes a debt to early Polanski here (Repulsion’s touch is heavy), among other atmospheric genre classics, but Darling never feels cheap in its homage. On the contrary, the film’s approach is actually quite refreshing in the current horror climate, and Keating’s aesthetic acumen is never indulgent, even when the score creeps up on you and punches you in the gut. Shot entirely in black and white (a polarizing move in itself), the time period in which the film is set is difficult to place. This decision serves an effective purpose in creating a hazy environment where much of who and what we encounter feels just a little off. Additionally, the creeping cinematography manages to make an unnerving environment of an otherwise stunning residential interior and a looming, alien threat of the bright Manhattan skyline.
Beyond its foremost appeal as art house eye-candy, Darling’s perfectly cast players notably elevate the story to something we can really care about. No talent is wasted here: In addition to Young’s brief, but memorable appearance as Madame, Brian Morvant conveys the questionable, handsome stranger on the street to charming effect, and busiest man alive Larry Fessenden makes another enjoyably humorous cameo for Keating in the film’s third act as a police officer (he has appeared in both Pod and Ritual). With each supporting character Darling encounters, it becomes clear that Keating wants you to be wary of just about everyone, casting shadows in just the right way through the perspective of his doe-eyed protagonist. In a brilliant exchange between Carter and Morvant on the street, it’s hard not to question if he is indeed a potential threat, or if our beloved Darling is losing her grip faster than expected. What makes the film even better is that Keating keeps you questioning this, even after the crazy really starts to go down and you are convinced you have a handle on who is really to fear here.
The major revelation in the film comes in its star Lauren Ashley Carter, who previously co-starred in Pod as well. A burgeoning genre staple over the last few years, Carter rises to new heights of performance here, carrying the story with a confidence and depth that captivates for the entire 78 minutes. Darling is the perfect enigma: beautiful, but clearly scarred by an occurrence in her past, details of which are only hinted at throughout the film. Although Carter is surely a sweet gal in real life, there is something in her enthralling performance as Darling nears her breaking point that provokes genuine terror as much as it does pity. She channels Darling’s frightening fragility in the most delicate of ways, masterfully toeing the line of eliciting both genuine fear for this woman and genuine fear of this woman from her audience.
The film is most certainly “art house horror” to a T, which will undoubtedly frustrate many people early on. It is not a film for everyone, or even for someone in its target audience who perhaps cannot approach it with the utmost in focus. At points, the crawling pace does inspire a sigh or two, although more often than not these moments serve to prolong tension. For viewers who stick with it for the answers, it is also worth noting that while revelations do ultimately occur (so to speak), they may not be explicitly satisfying enough for all.
What ultimately elevates Darling beyond a level of pretension that tends to hamper other films of this nature, however, is the careful scripting and cinematic intelligence of wunderkind Mickey Keating. Every cinematic decision – from a fit of quick cuts, to jarring moments in the sound design, to very pointedly ambiguous costuming – is in direct service to the tone and the aesthetic vision of Darling as a creeping hallucinatory nightmare of a story. There is no arbitrary nature to Keating’s approach here, and the fact that the film was shot in just 12 days and stands in such stark stylistic antithesis to his previous films is a testament to his current standing as an influenced, but fresh-eyed talent with impressive range. The man knows film and filmmaking, and it is exciting to see a film like this come from a director so early in his career.
I say keep them coming.