For as much hating as this critic does on the horribly overrated Blair Witch Project, he has to begrudgingly admit that the premise is pretty powerful. When done right, a first person perspective on the unraveling horror of a weekend in the woods could provide the makings of a legitimate fright film legend. After all, the way Witch worked it, the finale nearly saved the rest of the movie's mangled methodology. Complain all you want about the cast's constant expletive-laced ramblings, but the visual cues created as the last two survivors struggle to make sense of a descript house loaded with sinister symbols practically salvaged all that came before. The concept of capturing death and destruction as it happens is part and parcel of our new post-modern ideal of entertainment eavesdropping, with videogames trading on this tactic quite effectively. Even television has tried with shows like MTV's Fear. Yet film is at the forefront of this ideal, and another cinematic attempt arrives on DVD in the form of In the Dark. Supposedly the "true" story of a group of teens killed during a 1989 party at a haunted mental hospital, this effective indie shocker manages what Witch never could – it balances its crudeness and its creeps into an interesting and engaging experiment in exposition.
In 1985, a group of high school teens were allowed into a local asylum to work with the mentally handicapped as part of a social service program. While it seemed like a good idea at the time, the result was a fire, the death of a young patient, and the brutal scarring of one of the institute's most notorious residents – the criminally insane Lizzie Duncan. Five years later, the burned out building has become a mythic hangout for the town's alcohol-addled youth, and many involved in the events that fateful day are returning this Halloween night to confront their demons…and do drugs. They even bring along some video cameras to capture what happens, as well as to photograph each other having sex. At first, all seems fine. Booze and narcotics flow, and couples get frisky. But soon, surveillance cameras pick up mysterious figures roaming the empty halls. Are they simply escaped patients from the rebuilt hospital, or has Lizzie come back looking for a little paranormal payback? In the light of the scratchy video, fun turns to fear and then all out panic as, one by one, the kids start disappearing. Soon, no one is safe from the unnatural wrath of an entity that preys In the Dark. Presented here for our perusal is the footage found that night.
If you can get through the first 30 minutes of this well meaning mock macabre, a set-up stifled by all its drug-addled aimlessness and hyperactive characterization, you will find yourself thoroughly enjoying this inventive riff on the whole Blair Witch school of 'you are there' terror. Indeed, the best part about this otherwise average horror attempt is the way in which writer/director Slater Kane and his collection of feature film amateurs set out to sell us on the reality behind this Halloween visit to the burned out Ridgley Institution. Using a wonderfully evocative real life backdrop, and a nice combination of hand-held and security camera shots, we do get the impression of being along on a holiday party prank gone horribly, horribly wrong. Sure, some of the sequences are slapdash, corrupting the central conceit and flubbing the whole 'who's got the camcorder' dynamic, but when put together, flaws and all, we end up with something that succeeds more than it stumbles. Kudos then to a creative ideal that wants to be as realistic as possible, while also understanding that the best horror films have artistic flourishes that keep the fans fixated and on the edge of their scary movie seats. Instead of falling into the trap of most first person POV fright, Kane knows when to add a little fictionalizing to his supposed fact.
Still, there are those first few minutes. In order to keep his concept authentic and real, Kane lets his cast shamelessly mug and mock the camera, taking the 'homemade' aspect of the product far too literally. As we suffer through endless conversations about drugs, sex, narcotics, booty, pharmaceuticals, nookie, chronic and carnality, we wonder if there is a point to all this mindless chatter. It doesn't really develop the characters, and we can't actually empathize with dope fiends who just want to get f*cked up all the time. No, it takes a solo moment, when an obviously disturbed young man named Dalton discusses his plans for the evening, that we stop shutting down and actually start paying attention. Looking directly into the lens and painting a powerful portrait of an individual coming unglued, actor Jack Thyme is a little mannered, but his message comes across loud and clear. Where before we saw him as a pot-smoking joke (his line about living with his mother is hilarious), he now appears to be a source of potential danger. All macabre mythology surrounding the murderous mental patient aside, Dalton gives us a secondary source of scares here – and it's far more frightening than a psycho with a scarred face.
After our gang arrives at the abandoned asylum, In the Dark does finally find its footing and begins to grow on you. Kane understands that mood and atmosphere can make or break a movie, and before all the confusion cuts loose, he allows the characters one last lamentable choice (it involves an amplification of the already overdone drug use) before sending them to the slaughter. There will be those who listen to the unfolding explanation about why Lizzie Duncan is such a murderous bitch, and the kids' contribution to her oversized rage and scoff with understandable skepticism. After all, if we believe everything that these delinquents did while part of a program of high school community service, we'd have a corrupt collection of future serial killers on our hands. What these young people did is indeed disgusting, and sets them up as perfectly acceptable victims for our insane maniac. But once the butchering begins, it really doesn't matter. Gorehounds may hate Kane for keeping many of the killings off camera, or witnessed from a distance via surveillance footage. Had he found a way to make his murders as juicy as his premise, and avoided some of the silly shenanigans at the beginning of the story, we'd have a real winner here, an indie effort on par with something like Session 9. As it stands, this is a fine, if fractured attempt to place us in the path of the dread experienced by the characters. It more or less works.
Using a unique combination of hand held, professional digital and well faked surveillance cameras, the 1.33:1 image created by Kane suits his purposes perfectly. Sometimes, the image is a shoddy Super-VHS mess (the movie is set in the late '80s after all) while at other instances – like during the modern day Q&A with those involved in the investigation of the case - the visuals are clear and crisp. Kane also employs a few aesthetic twists to his directorial tendencies. During one particularly impressive sequence, the lens sways back and forth as a character plays on an abandoned swing set. Just out of view, a frightening figure seems to be standing in one of the asylum's windows. Though we can barely make it out, the effect is wonderful, since it really does keep the viewer off guard. Not quite as good, but equally interesting is a kill near the property's front gate. As the camera moves back and forth in an obvious preprogrammed security sweep, we see the set up, the stalking, and the eventual slaughter. With no consistent colors or contrasts, the multimedia effect employed is further enhanced.
Occasionally overmodulated and scored with some suspect musical choices (during a final act chase, a horrid helping of derivative punk pounding renders the sequence laughable) the Dolby Digital Stereo mix is still pretty good. There is a nice use of the abandoned building's acoustics to amplify the terror and the occasional chaotic dialogue is always rendered in a discernible, if distorted manner.
Sadly, the only added content here besides a trailer is a seven minute look behind the scenes at the making of In the Dark. While the pre-production footage of the abandoned building site used is interesting, the cast and crew comments run the gamut from dull to ditzy. Instead of providing this piddling bonus, Sovereign Distribution should have stayed with the "this is all real" ruse used by the DVD cover art (the back image is set of files from the investigation into the events, complete with a nasty crime scene photo) and provided nothing but the disc. This way, we aren't anxious for the typical collection of extras - commentaries, interviews or deleted scenes - that usually accompany an independent horror release.
Easily Recommended for how it works once the pathetic pot humor is over and done with, In the Dark stands in stark contrast to other homemade horror movies flooding the market. It doesn't try to reinvent a genre (slasher, vampire, etc), it avoids the standard low budget movie monsters (zombies, serial killers) and tries for something both pragmatically and aesthetically different than your typical point and shoot scares. While it's never quite as horrifying as it thinks it is, and can occasionally de-evolve into a collection of actors screaming and shrieking for no apparent reason, the truth is that writer/director Slater Kane has bested Blair Witch in both execution and ideas. While the whole POV category of cinema may be an incredibly narrow avenue of artistic expression, something like In the Dark shows those interested in pursuing it the "almost" right way of achieving acceptable results. It's not perfect, but when viewed alongside other erratic examples, it's an interesting and innovation attempt.
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