Posted on March 22, 2017

Devil in the Dark & Eco-Horror

Dawn

2017                Canada                        Tim J. Brown              82 min.

Given the rush of high-profile horror releases in March, 2017 (Get Out, XX, The Belko Experiment, Raw, The Girl with All the Gifts, The Devil’s Candy), you may be forgiven if you haven’t heard of Canadian director Tim J. Brown’s indie film, Devil in the Dark. I hope this review helps spread the word about a genuinely scary, well-crafted, superbly-acted, and provocative indie horror film. It’s on VOD, so you can rent it now (and you should!).

Here’s the trailer:

Devil in the Dark rises above the mass of horror films through its exceptional script (by Carey Dickson) and equally exceptional performances by the two principal characters, two estranged brothers Clint (Dan Payne) and Adam (Robin Dunne).

I’ll say at the outset that one of the things I love about this film is its restraint. It refuses to fill in all the gaps at so many levels, both narratively and visually. One of the points of obliqueness is why Adam has returned to his small hometown in rural Canada after an absence of fifteen years. Clint asks him why, but Adam can’t really say. Back he is, though, despite the fact that Adam has clearly spent his life defining himself against his home, his father (now dead), and his older brother, with their traditional families, their love of hunting, and their (struggling) logging business. Not only is Adam back, but he and Clint are heading high into the mountains to hunt for six days. Intercut with their preparations for leaving, we learn that when he was four, Adam was lost in the woods for hours, and although he can’t consciously remember the experience, something from those lost hours has continued to haunt him—a presence, whispering, a feeling of dread. We can’t help but feel that maybe that’s why he’s returned.

Clint and Adam head up the mountains (and the film is shot in beautiful Kelowna, British Columbia). While the brothers hear a few strange noises, things don’t really take a turn toward the unambiguously disturbing until they discover the opening to a cave on a plateau, the outside of which is scattered with deer antlers. That the brothers don’t make this discovery until two-thirds of the way into the film tells you all you need to know about the “slow-burn” of this film and about the brilliant way it builds suspense and dread gradually—again, not least through the great acting of Payne and Dunne.

Whatever is in the cave wants Adam—and that something is shown to us only in flashes and glimpses. We never learn exactly what it is or what it wants (more of that obliqueness). But it pursues Adam relentlessly in the last part of the film as his brother struggles to save him. These final scenes are utterly gripping, and I let out at least two actual and for-real screams that made others in the room with me jump (I was watching on my laptop with earbuds.) And I did not see the (brilliant) ending coming! I desperately wanted this narrative to continue, not only because of the uncanny threat the film creates but also because I was thoroughly invested in the lives of these two brothers.

Some of those who’ve commented on the film have expressed some frustration with the way the film withholds its “monster” and a lot of answers. For me, though, that’s in part what the film is about. And here I’m going to speculate for a minute.

I think this film isn’t offering any easy answers because, on one level at least, I think it can be read as eco-horror, as a horror film shaped in part by environmental destruction, which is (like the monster) a shadowy lurking presence in this film.

For one thing, the reason Clint and Adam are going on a days-long trek up into the mountains is because the deer population has vanished from the more accessible part of the land around their town. Is this because of the monster that lives in the cave? Maybe. But that monster could also be a figure for over-hunting and habitat destruction. The exterior and interior of its cave are littered with antlers. Adam, moreover, has a principled opposition to hunting, calling it “murder” and “harvesting deer,” so there’s a perspective critical of hunting embedded in the film.

Furthermore, although the film doesn’t explicitly raise this point, it’s clear that much of the forest Clint and Adam are hiking through has been cleared by loggers; indeed, the family owns a logging business, one that Clint is struggling to keep afloat: he’s obviously engaged in supporting the economic needs of his family and their small town (offering employment) in the face of environmental damage. To press this point home (about human use of local natural resources), when the brothers start hearing uncanny cracking noises, Clint suggests that it’s coming from mines: there’s apparently extensive fracking happening up in the mountains as well.

While Devil in the Dark is definitely a story about the always tortured bonds of family, then, I think it’s also about the “slow violence,”[i] the lurking horror, of ecological damage. And maybe this fact explains some of the ways the narrative isn’t clear—the way that not everything is explained.

In his book, Dark Ecology, Timothy Morton argues that now that we’re in an age in which humans are changing our climate, we’re also in an “age in which there is no objectified, obvious cause and effect churning away below phenomena like cogwheels.” Morton adds that causality, in this new world, may actually now lie in the realm of art.[ii] Devil in the Dark is one of those work of art, I think, where we see a new kind of narrative, a new kind of causality, lurking under the surface—a narrative that expresses the consequences of humans’ destruction of the environment. Horror film is always where it’s at!

Grade: B+

[i][i] This phrase is from Rob Nixon’s wonderful book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press, 2013). In another post, I argue that the zombies of AMC’s The Walking Dead (like the creature in Devil in the Dark) is a figure for ecological destruction.

[ii] Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (Columbia University Press, 2016), p. 29.

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