Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Defending: The Dark (2005)

Critically panned for being altogether confusing and almost too open for interpretation, The Dark is a film that for some reason, I adore. Perhaps it is the stunning Isle of Man (standing in for Wales) oceanic vistas and serene pastures that draws me in. Maybe it's my fascination with Gaelic/Celtic lore. Not sure, but it's a beautiful looking film. If I had but one wish it would be to move to that seaside cottage that Sean Bean is restoring in the movie - a place where there is no cell phone service and enough sheep in the yard to induce months of restful sleep.
That is, unless they are cliff diving, suicide-seeking sheep. In one rather disturbing scene, that very thing happens.
Ah, but first...

As the film begins we are introduced to Adele (Maria Bello) who is en route to a remote seaside cottage owned by her estranged husband James (Sean Bean). Tagging along for the ride is their daughter Sarah (Sophie Stuckey), who is a capricious yet despondent pre-teen with a ten ton grudge against her mother. The two hardly speak in the car - it's all short answers and snide remarks - and when Adele becomes lost and they have to sleep in the car, Sarah is beyond disgusted with her mother.

Morning arrives to find Sarah gone from the vehicle, and after Adele has a near-panic attack she discovers her cliff-side, gazing at a strange gravestone-like marker with the word "Annwyn" marked on it.

Soon they happen upon James's house (idealistically just 'round the bend') and it's clear by the stiff greetings exchanged that Adele and James are cordial yet reserved with each other, while Sarah is very obviously giddy with joy at finally being reunited with her father.

Bedrooms are dispensed for the two guests in the cottage, and from the fact that Adele's room is across the hallway from the one James occupies - things are not at all well in the land of matrimony. They also soon meet Dafydd ( Maurice Roëves) who seems to be a jack-of- all-trades... a handyman/shepherd/Welsh lore expert. How convenient!

While James, Adele and Sarah talk a stroll around the area, they run into Dafydd, who tells them the tale of the mysterious marker near the cliff. Seems a strange preacher-slash-shepherd, while mourning the death of his sickly daughter Ebrill (Abigail Stone), convinced his entire congregation to come over to his eccentric way of thinking. (Think Jim Jones and the kool-aid.)

He brainwashed them into a mass suicide by having them jump off a cliff into the rocky sea below. According to Welsh mythology, it is believed that giving a soul to the afterlife, you can have a soul return to you from Annwyn (Welsh for afterlife). So he "gave" his daughter to the sea and then as his parishioners committed suicide he hoped Annwyn would be satisfied and return Ebrill to him.

While Ebrill did indeed return, something came back with her. (Isn't that just the way it always seems to go?)

An evil so hellish that for some reason, it made all the local sheep do the cliff-diving stunt. (So now I've seen both horses [as in 'The Ring'] kill themselves, as well as the sheep in this tale. What is next? Cows? Pigs?)
The town was in an uproar, knowing that something was wrong with Ebrill. Her father desperately tried to cure her himself by performing strange procedures on her such as drilling into her skull (to let the evil escape?) and by locking her in her bedroom.

Dafydd, meanwhile, had been a boy when these events occurred. His parents belonged to the bizarre shepherd's "flock" as well, and though they committed suicide, Dafydd was too afraid and didn't jump.

The pastor/shepherd took him in, but Dafydd ended up setting Ebrill free because he couldn't stand all the pain her father inflicted on her in the creepy abattoir (the sheep's slaughterhouse).
Ebrill in turn pushes her father over the cliff . Nasty!
Dafydd, realizing she was too far gone, drowned her, sending her back to Annwyn.
Are you still with me?

Back to the present. On the walk, Sarah nearly falls off a cliff when the sheep have some sort of freaky episode and start herding her towards the edge. Several sheep jump over her and off the cliff to their death below.
Soon after, Sarah - rebellious and somewhat depressed - accidentally falls into the ocean from some slippery rocks. A days-long search is finally called off, and the realization that Sarah is dead casts a dark pall over the distraught couple.

When a enigmatic young girl appears out of nowhere and worms her way into James and Adele's home, Adele soon realizes that it is the supposedly dead Ebrill, attempting to take Sarah's place in their lives. Ebrill keeps giving Adele cryptic messages from beyond the realm of the living, and Adele comes to understand what needs to be done to get her daughter back. She has to give Annwyn a life to get one back.
Trying to convince James of all this is another story altogether. He's having a bit of trouble coming to terms with the whole afterlife and a life-for-a-life thing.

Where the film suffers most is the attempt to allow viewers to decipher the ending. There is such a struggle to provide a reasonable conclusion to everything that's come before it that things just get lost in the shuffle, and unfortunately the viewer does as well.

We see Adele, searching for Sarah relentlessly, at first in the confines of the (very eerie and dreadful) abattoir where she has weird flashes of the reprehensible things that happened there, and also in an upstairs attic (Ebrill's former room) where she digs into the wall to find various clues to her daughter's disappearance. The clues we are given are simply too confusing to help us put this mystery all together. It almost gets to the point where you don't care if you do and you just want to get on with it already!

The afterlife depicted here - or the road there as the case may be - feels strange. Yes, it's surreal and unfamiliar, but while I thought it would be frightening, it wasn't. The colors on the screen morph to a sepia tone and Ebrill's voice carries a funky echo, but besides that it really wasn't much of a departure from the rest of the film, and carried no weight as far as explaining anything. We do, however, discover the reason Sarah was so damn irritated with her mother.

Bouncing all over the place throughout most of the 90 minute running time, the ending is semi-satisfying, I will give it that. But getting there is no picnic. There is just so much going on here. Secret keys to secret doors, frontal lobotomies, the previously mentioned suicidal sheep, weird depictions of the afterlife, confusing Welsh phrases...etc.

So why do I like it so much? I truly believe that sometimes style can work without a great degree of substance. After all, I like Italian horror, so I'm used to not really comprehending the plot. Hell, this film could have used subtitles in parts and I still wouldn't have understood it. But I really have to state that the acting was well above average. With Bello and Bean it was hard not to have a bit of quality, and that can always enhance a less-than-stellar plot. The movie's musical score by Edmund Butt is a real keeper - it really complemented the sometimes bleak and almost always brooding film. I bought the score the day after seeing it, it's that good.
Plus, I loved the cinematography and so much of what they were trying to do here. At times it's visually striking, at others just simply creepy as hell.
And I can certainly deal with that.

So all I can say is to give it a try. If you're not a film snob who likes everything unconditionally perfect, you just may find yourself enjoying this moody yet aesthetically pleasing venture into the spookier side of Welsh mythology.

Footnote: The source material for this film is a novel called 'Sheep' by Simon Maginn. If anyone knows where I can get a copy please let me know - I've been trying for years to find one but it is currently out of print.

HorrorBlips: vote it up!


Anonymous said...

You had me at "Sean Bean." Fortunately the rest of the movie looks pretty cool as well. Got it on my Netflix queue, and thanks for the heads-up about it.

Perpendicular Peter said...

Totally agree, the movie looked amazing, Sean Bean was great, and it was genuinely creepy. I just happened upon your article, and was actually surprised to read it was universally panned.

kindertrauma said...

Count me in as a fan of this movie too! The setting is just incredible and it's got a great melancholy tone. I've never understood the adverse reaction to it, do people just not like sheep or something? Also, this movie should win an award for "Best use of a door slamming on someone's face"! Thanks for giving this one the props it deserves!-Unk

*G*R*U*N*T*I*L*D*A* said...

I love the part where all the sheep start jumping over the cliff...

Solid film, well acted and gorgeous scenery.

C.L. Hadden said...

Larissa - let me know what you think. And I love Sean Bean as well.

Peter - I've read a lot of negative reviews about it and I never could understand why!

Unk - The door-slamming was one of the best parts of the film, guaranteed. I am glad, though, that they didn't literally call it "Sheep" like the title of the book.

"Grunt" - My mother used to say "If everyone would jump over a cliff would you be a sheep and do the same?" I think she was making a point back then, and I just got it;)

Will Errickson said...

Thanks for the heads-up on this; somehow I hadn't heard of it. Maria Bello is always good, and I'm also a sucker for mood over substance or plot!

Will Errickson said...

Meant to add: I am *not*, however, a fan of generic horror movies titles like "The Dark." If I had run across this before, I probably ignored it for that reason alone.

Ian Dodgson said...

Hey Christine, just read you write up on The Dark and I've got to aagree with you on the look and feel of the film. Much like with Dune, I'm a fan of this film almost for what it could have been rather than what it is.
Did you ever manage to get a copy of 'Sheep' as I see it's available on the uk version of amazon? reading the synopsis it seems that a few things were changed in the translation from paper to screen. Here is a link:

Marie said...

I must see this! You know how I love folklore ;)