Director: Nicole Groton
Writer: Nicole Groton
Stars: Nicole Tompkins, David Labiosa, Melissa Macedo
2020, am I right? The world is in turmoil, I don’t know if you’ve noticed. In all seriousness, though, we’re dealing with a situation for which most of us aren’t really prepared. Living through a pandemic, in confinement, will have both immediate and long-lasting repercussions. The phenomenon has already started being explored in cinema, with Shudder’s amazing The Host (2020) rising to the top of crop of films developed around COVID-19. But a film needn’t be about this particular pandemic to feel timely. During Horrible Imaginings Film Festival 2020, I had the opportunity to watch Darkness in Tenement 45, a piece of celluloid whose relevance and sheer quality put it squarely as a candidate for my favorite movie of the year.
As an Army veteran, I’ve always had a soft spot for narratives set around historical conflicts. Darkness in Tenement 45 takes place in alternate-reality 1950-something, where the Soviets their Red Army have put New York under siege. A small building and its tenents will need to stay and pull together, inside, as they try to survive a threat that might be nuclear or biohazardous in nature. Joanna, a teen suffering from a malady dubbed The Darkness, serves as the vehicle to move forward the brilliant and layered narrative about confinement, mental health, mysoginy and the dark nature of humankind.
And while all of this already sounds quite interesting, it barely scratches the surface of what DT45 has to offer. The truth is that the setting serves almost the same purpose that the rules of chess do: they create the conditions under which the pawns move around. And what pawns, kings and queens this story has.
A masterclass in character development, Darkness in Tenement 45 a plethora of topics, but it never feels like it’s spreading itself too thin. I cannot possibly go into detail every single plot point, and honestly, it’d be a disservice. But allow me to expand upon those which resonated with me the most.
First off, the character of Joanna, whose struggle with The Darkness (and her overbearing aunt Martha) mirrors my own battle with depression and anxiety to an eerie degree. I have seen mental health explored in horror films before, but not since The Babadook have I felt truly scared of seeing the darkest side of me on screen. Also, the character of Tomas, a Hispanic boy whose dad must make a sacrifice for the greater good, greatly resonated with teenage me’s own migrant child past. Having also had to inhabit a makeshift “room” created with old closet doors, I felt a strong connection to Tomas’ development that lingered long after I was done watching the film.
Other plotpoint highlights for me include Walter and his sister, two foster children of color who must learn to survive a most perilous situation with the added stress of being perceived as second-class citizens. On the topic of second-class citizenship, younger women, some of which are much better suited to leadership, must also struggle with not being heard or considered of any worth.
Needless to say, then, that if you are the kind of George Romero “fan” who complains about new horror films being “political”, you should give Darkness in Tenement 45 a very wide berth. On the other hand, if you like your flicks to carry the extra spice of social commentary, DT45 provides a full serving, and then some.
I must also emphasize that said serving comes in the most beautiful of platters. During a Q&A session I had the pleasure of attending, the filmmakers cited the Bioshock and Fallout video game franchises as inspiration for the aesthetic and presentation of DT45. I don’t know about you, but being a huge fan of both, seeing their worlds on the big screen would be a dream come true. From the music to the colors and even the character development, Darkness in Tenement 45 provides the next best thing.
Another advantage of having attended that Q&A is that I can see why the characters felt so real: diversity. Far from being tokenistic in nature, the representation of sensitive subject matter in the film felt careful, deliberate, and genuine. I’m happy to report that this is the result of a diverse cast and crew, comprised of amazing women, racial minorities, and other underrepresented communities. While this may not matter to some, it matters greatly to me. And it is certainly undeniable that it is this diversity that is responsible, to a large degree, for the accuracy in the portrayal of social issues.
In short, Darkness in Tenement 45 shook me to my core. Having been made long before we knew what a coronavirus was, its focus on the nature of human behavior in quarantine feels contemplative rather than exploitative. The filmmakers carefully chose to tackle complex topics that are still relevant today, through the lens of a mid-XX-century dystopia, and succeeded on every front. This film is an absolute triumph, and my only regret is not being able to tell you where you can watch it for yourselves.
Darkness in Tenement 45
Darkness in Tenement 45 is a timely and important commentary piece that looks amazing, is extremely well acted, and a solid candidate for my movie of the year.