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by Jay Seaver

"Better than many sci-fi adventures made with what's at hand."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: There's something almost bizarrely endearing about the limited resources visible for the production of "Darken", like the filmmakers looked at their script and the vacated building that they had to shoot in and said, okay, we're just going to do this, and if we do this well enough, the audience will supply the reasons why this all makes sense on their own. In this case, they do just well enough to intrigue.

It opens with two women seemingly banished from a cult before shifting attention to Eve (Bea Santos), a troubled nurse who is there when one of them is found outside a seemingly-abandoned building. She goes in and encounters Mercy (Zoe Belkin) and Karisse (Gabrielle Graham), but soon finds that it's hard to find her way back out, and this "Darken" is supposedly learned by one "Mother Darken", although her priestess Clarity (Christine Horne) has been doing the whole thing where she speaks for Mother without anyone seeing her for a while.

Oftentimes an independent genre movie will distract by something being almost comically subpar, but this one almost has the opposite problem: Everybody in Darken is wearing the sort of fantastic post-apocalyptic couture that you only see in comic books and Mad Max movies in marked contrast to the redressed living rooms and basements around them. It's initially a pretty strange contrast, and I don't think that either writer RJ Lackie or director Audrey Cummings quite manages to do all that they could with it, but there's a metaphor about people with sharp, heroic images of themselves in the midst of a run-down, disappointing world that the movie flirts with, with the self-doubting Eve's conventional attire serving as a contrast and Charity's "Arbiter" Martin (Ari Millen) undergoing a wholesale makeover as his role and attitude changes. This may not necessarily be entirely deliberate as much as a case of costume designer Marissa Schwartz being able to deliver more on a small budget than the rest of the film's crew, but it works even as one notices the incongruity.

That's not meant to diminish the work of everyone else involved; the movie is generally well put-together, with a good balance between inspiration and making do. The cast also spends a lot of time threading the needle between grand fantasy and needing to ground in reality, but mostly do okay. Eve's the sort of uncertain hero brought into a strange new world that the audience may have seen several times, but Bea Santos captures that pretty well, giving off an air that she may belong in Darken even as she's someone to whom the audience can immediately relate. Gabrielle Graham and Zoe Belkin don't quite find the same fit as her companions - they're a decent skeptical/trusting pairing, but they serve a purpose more than they feel like protagonists of their own story. Compare to Christine Horne, who chews the scenery but gives Clarity the utter certainty of a true believer, or the way Ari Millen's Martin grows more monstrous as he feels more confident; they may be simple villains, but they're worthy ones.

Despite having some impressive elements, Darken does sometimes seem to suffer as it chooses its genre - just as thrillers about communities that think young women are witches often become less scary when actual witches show up, this movie gets a bit less interesting with everything that suggests Eve actually has crossed over into some bizarre alternate dimension. That's weird, but maybe not as compelling as a group of damaged young people constructing such an alternate reality in the middle of a city. It lets the filmmakers create some striking and, occasionally, memorably gross effects scenes, but it's not a scenario the filmmakers always have the resources to sell as a possibility.

With that in mind, "Darken"'s filmmakers do a better job of both having ambition and delivering on it than many who try to make this sort of film. It won't get to the multiplexes, and may not look like much once it's sitting next to more polished and commercial productions on various virtual shelves, but as the work of young filmmakers honing their craft and trying to make something unique before they have to serve too many masters, it's never less than watchable and frequently interesting.

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originally posted: 03/15/18 04:25:55
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Directed by
  Audrey Cummings

Written by
  RJ Lackie

  Bea Santos
  Christine Horne
  Ari Millen
  Gabrielle Graham
  ZoŽ Belkin

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