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Sunday, 17 August 2014

Dark Places (2005)

Director: Guy Crawford
Stars: Nessa Hawkins, David C Hayes and Syn DeVil
This film was an official selection at the 1rd Phoenix Fear Film Festival in Phoenix in 2006. Here's an index to my reviews of 2006 films.
Dark Places is one of those overly generic titles that doesn't promise much, but it's an oddly appropriate one given where it takes us. We're here to follow Keri Walker, a drug addicted whore, so she's hardly in a pleasant place to begin with and she quickly finds worse. 'You looking for a date?' is her first line, never a promising one in a horror movie, whatever the budget, and sure enough, her potential client throws her in the back seat and tries to rape her. She defends herself with a razor blade, so things get as messy as they do dark. To highlight how whacked out she is, we see much of this in schizophrenic montages, with staccato editing and a ravy soundtrack. Before we even get to the opening credits, she finds herself in a bathroom for a particularly freaky scene that sets the stage well. She's trying to clean up, utterly shaken, when another hooker comes in and tries to talk to her. It's a bizarre, utterly one-sided conversation that tells us a great deal immediately and may well tell us a lot more in hindsight, eighty minutes later.

Each time she descends to a new circle in her personal Hell we wonder if this is as far as she's going to go, but this film keeps switching the lights on another circle down. She's already physically and sexually abused, so next up is verbally abused. She walks over to her dealer Rush's place, hoping for a hit and a place to sleep, but he only sells her the former. 'You're not my friend,' he blisters at her. 'You're nobody's friend.' The hooker in the bathroom mentioned that she's going to stay at 'fat ass Luther's', so she heads over there to join her. He has an entire collection of hookers and addicts inside in every state of oblivion, some dancing it up like they're having the time of their lives, some completely zoned as if they've done that already and others passed out with nothing left in them. There's an elderly skeleton of an addict in the bathroom, hurling an encore of verbal abuse Keri's way; there's a prom queen in clown-like make-up looking for her crown; and there's a chick in Luther's bedroom who appears to have her lips sewn shut.

'Who says you'll be safer inside?' Luther asked her before she chose to enter and, given that he's played by David C Hayes, that's a really good question. He co-wrote and co-produced this film with director Guy Crawford and, while it fits very well with the freaky taboo roles he so often plays, it's far more consistent in its freakiness than most of the rest. Much of that has to do with the wild editing, courtesy of Nic Hill, which often makes us feel like we're going through a similar trip to Keri, but it's also due to those dark places which the film embraces. Every time we think Keri may have a lucid moment, the film is ready to scotch that. 'Kill yourself,' chants the anorexic druggy in the mirror. 'There's nothing out there for you,' suggests a strange chick who walks into the bathroom with her. At times, Luther's place seems like a set of trippers tripping different trips; at others, it's much more like a lunatic asylum. The tone and even the geography of the place changes, as if it's more of a nightmare place than a physical one.
Even lines that might play appropriately in the real world bleed into another level in this film. 'Everyone ends up here,' says one of its guests, after Keri wakes up from a nightmare to find there are four people on her single bed. It's at this point that the strangest thing happens, because this twisted exploitation flick reveals a heart and a substance that we really don't expect. Don't get me wrong, there are a whole bunch of problems here but we don't care as much as we would under other circumstances. The picture quality and lighting are notably variable. Sound is even more of an issue, as I suspect that the constant soundtrack doesn't merely aid the trippy feel of the piece, it also conceals for the most part the poorly recorded sound, which is ramped up every time someone has dialogue, accompanying static and all. If this had been another film, we could get disheartened quickly and drift away. Yet this keeps us watching for a bunch of reasons, the chief among them being Nessa Hawkins, who is amazing as Keri.

If IMDb is anything to go by, this is her only lead role, which is surprising. A year earlier, she had written and directed a short film called Drive By which won an award in Albuquerque; a year later, she appeared in another David C Hayes film, Machined. Why she vanished off the cinematic map, I have no idea, but it was far too soon. This isn't the sort of film that anyone watches to experience great acting and some of the supporting players are clearly here because they look their parts rather than because they could act them, but Hawkins is a real discovery, utterly believable in her role. She dominates proceedings, even if those proceedings dominate her character. Of course, the hallucinogenic feel helps her because she has few long scenes and those she has are strongly edited. There are also superb little shots that emphasise her plight, like one where we watch her shake on the floor, only to realise that the floor is a door when it opens to let her through, because the shot was taken from above it.

It's odd to care so much about a character like Keri, but the performance Hawkins turns in and the freaky framework that has her stuck in these dark places like a rat in a maze help us do exactly that. She knows full well that she's been on a downward spiral for a long time and she wishes she was able to escape the pain in a surprisingly sympathetic way. Of course, we never know how much of this is real and how much hallucination or nightmare, but it's claustrophobic and that helps us want her to get out. Even if she dug most of the holes she's found herself in, she's put through a lot more than we'd wish on anyone, and we don't exactly find a lot of sympathetic characters anywhere else. The bad guys are bad guys and so are the good guys, to someone like Keri. The only character in the film who does anything positive for her is Tim, one of the guests at Luther's, and he ends up bludgeoned to death and thrown into a pit. Nobody is able to help, not even the one who was willing, so Keri has to find a way to help herself.
While we aren't convinced from moment one that everything we see is real, Keri's inexorable descent into dark places continues until nobody can fail to notice how metaphorical it becomes. The key is also hinted at throughout but the most obtuse viewers shouldn't be too surprised when it shows up with a vengeance fifty minutes in to prompt us to reevaluate everything we've seen. One of the brightest decisions that the writers made was to tie the progression of the script so closely to Keri's state of mind, because it provides a fascinating and surprisingly substantial trip for we viewers and also inherently forgives any odd slips of consistency. Given that Keri isn't exactly seeing through lucid eyes, anything that doesn't make sense to us can be explained away as not making sense to her. This makes what actually happens less important than how it all goes down, which brings us back to Keri's hallucinogenic fever dream that manifests itself through the visual aesthetic and the increasing metaphors.

This makes me wonder whether Hayes's most important contribution to the film was as a scriptwriter or an actor. Certainly he's gone to darker places in other films, often in much smaller roles, but this is a big part in which he's consistently, freakily watchable. He holds court in a wildly outsider way, wearing a toga to sing and dance before a rapt and chanting crowd utterly under his thumb. His control varies from calm dominance to childlike frustration, though there's more of an edge here than I've seen when he's brought out the big baby approach before. He was embarrassing in Back Woods, for instance, but he's dangerous here. Keri finds out the hard way what happens to people who cross Luther. Also, it's bizarrely successful to have his screen wife here be a gothic lesbian dominatrix, with him because he makes her laugh. While Syn DeVil, like so many of the supporting actors, could have delivered her lines with more meaning, she couldn't possibly have fit the part better physically.

Director Guy Crawford is known for his edgy horror movies, though this is the only one I've seen thus far. He may have started out with what appears to be a relatively conventional slasher movie in The Catcher and his last film, Flesh, TX, doesn't look particularly out there, but in between there's a set of pictures in which he moved progressively into weirder, less commercial, more ambitious territory, such as Starved, Autopsy: A Love Story and Dark Places. This could be seen as an art film as much as an exploitation flick, because it really does come down to the trippy feel of the piece, which is generated by wild editing, odd gimmicks and deceptively loose writing. It's always interesting to see what someone with imagination can do with very little budget and there's no way that Crawford had much in hand to make this one, part of why it runs under 80 minutes. I'm sure that most viewers will have some idea of what they'll see, but I bet that most of them will end up surprised at how imaginative, successful and untraditional it is.

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