Written and Directed by Mickey Keating
Starring Lauren Ashley Carter, Sean Young, Brian Morvant, Larry Fessenden, John Speredakos, Al-Nisa Petty, and Helen Rogers
It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday night at a busy mall multiplex. Dozens of people are wandering around the lobby, grabbing a snack or talking with their friends before they head into their theater. I buy a ticket for a movie called Darling and ask if they’ve sold many that night. I’d heard nothing about the movie before seeing it on the online schedule, and had to Google it to find a description.
“I believe you are the only one who bought a ticket today,” the guy at the booth says. I ask if they’d still show the movie if I hadn’t bought a ticket. Apparently, they would. There are contracts involved, and anyway, all the movies are run by computer these days. Poor projectionists.
There is one other person in the theater already when I sit down, which makes me wonder how he got there. If he paid and was really looking forward to this, or if he snuck in after seeing something else. There is a warning after the previews that the movie contains “flashing lights and hallucinatory images.” Which brings up another question, whether that is an actual warning for people with neurological disorders who might be set off, or if it’s there for mood, like William Castle’s intro to his 1959 Vincent Price vehicle The Tingler.
It isn’t a long wait to find out. The strobe lights flash, and suddenly there is a woman staring at the audience menacingly, Lauren Ashley Carter as Darling. She is shown from the shoulders up, in black and white. She has large, dark eyes, which are further emphasized by her light complexion, her brunette hair framing her face, and the top of her black dress. It’s a great uncomfortable start. You may be watching her, but she’s also watching you.
Darling comes on as an artsy film, monochrome with chapter titles. But at its heart, it’s the kind of story someone might tell by a campfire with a flashlight under their face. The opening scene is almost Scooby-Doo-like. Darling is starting a job as caretaker of a mansion in New York City, and Madame (Sean Young) is giving her instructions. She casually throws in that it’s the oldest house in the city, and casually breezes over the fact that the last caretaker killed herself by jumping off of the outside balcony. But, you know, don’t worry too much about that. I’m sure that won’t come up later.
She is alone in a big old ornately-appointed mansion. And Carter looks haunted from that first scene, and dressed for the part in a gothic-looking black dress and white lacey bib. She struggles to get her enormous suitcase up to her room and takes a look around to find one room, at the end of a claustrophobically small hallway, locked. There are black scratch marks around the handle. On the phone with Madame, she is told not to go in there under any circumstances. The trajectory is set, and horror fans can probably guess most of the points leading up to the conclusion.
That doesn’t seem to matter much. The story is mainly a conveyance to usher you through a series of creepy moments. And Darling does creepy right. It’s not afraid of long stretches of silence. It dwells on objects and cityscapes, avoiding people and heightening the feeling of isolation. At each chapter, the camera once again lingers on Darling staring out at the audience. Carter is undeniably the center of the movie. She’s the only one in the cast with significant screen time. And she shines in these fourth-wall-breaking segments. She is sinister while maintaining a mostly flat expression. I didn’t time it, but it seems to stay a little longer each time. It’s a staring contest, and there were moments I felt like maybe I should look away.
Darling slowly deteriorates throughout the movie, on cue. Although there isn’t much by way of establishing the character at the start, so there’s not much of a baseline to compare it to. There is a backstory that gets clearer by the end, but Darling is comfortable letting the audience fill in a lot of important details. It waits to show you blood, and leaves you on the other side of the bathroom door for the goriest parts, listening to a hacksaw work on bone. The last impression is of Darling at her murderous best, and impressions are what matter most in this movie. And post credits, there is a classic horror denouement that might make some fans smile.
After the credits, I ask my fellow watcher if he could tell me how he found the movie. He tells me he read about it opening at another theater, and was surprised to see it playing in the theater across from the movie he’d actually come to see. Turns out he is a fan of writer/director Mickey Keating, and recommended another of his movies, Pod, that I hadn’t heard about.
We talk a bit as we walk out. He enjoyed Darling, thought it was a throwback to 70s horror movies. It’s not a perfect fit, but I mention The Changeling, the 1980 George C. Scott movie, and he nods. I say it’s the perfect kind of movie to watch on a rainy day with your significant other, which I do not realize until later probably also seems kind of a creepy thing to say to a stranger. I say I also enjoyed it. “You probably don’t want to pay too much attention to the story,” I say, and he laughs. “Yeah, but it’s all about atmosphere.” And he’s right.
That’s part of what I love about being a horror fan. Movies, books, whatever your entry point to horror might be, there’s a lot to sort through, and any fan you meet can probably give you an enthusiastic tip for something you’ve never heard of. And that might be because he spent a night in a nearly-empty theater some random Saturday night.