It’s a question that savages every horror screenwriter: how do you get around the technology problem? Getting your characters truly isolated in this day and age so they can be (as the reality show puts it) Naked And Afraid is a hurdle you’ve gotta hop, or it’ll kneecap you with naysayers. Choruses of “Just phone for help, dummy!” will drown out your heroes, no matter your best intentions, if you don’t find a smart way to face-on confront our current ease (some would say our disease) of inescapable connection.
Well five seconds into writer-director Andrew Cumming’s devilishly simple and effectively scary Out of Darkness we’re given a piece of on-screen text that cuts those worries off at the quick with a succinctness you cannot possibly question—as soon as the words “45,000 Years Ago” pops up all thoughts of geo-location devices and cell signals (hell, all thoughts of toilet paper and toothpaste) fly right out of your head. It turns out that the Stone Age, my friends, is to be truly Naked and Afraid. Point: Movie!
Setting your movie among our ancient ancestors does offer up its own problems, however—namely how do you stay on the good side of all of the “ooga-googa”-isms that could turn your movie into a gritty reboot of The Flintstones? Or even worse—that goofy-ass 1981 Ringo Starr vehicle Caveman? It’s a surprisingly porous line between realism and Raquel Welch in a fur bikini. But even if some of its costumes feel limited by what were no doubt budget and time constraints (they’re all a little too clean and not nearly natty enough), Out of Darkness manages the feat, and ultimately manages to feel legitimately transportive. It’s not quite Robert-Eggers-level production artistry a la The Witch and The Lighthouse, but it’s getting there. And for what it is, it turns out enough.
Because what it is is just your most basic of survival stories. There’s no extra meat on these bones. (It’s very close in spirit to feeling like an early Neil Marshall movie, something like The Descent.) As we meet them, our characters sit around a campfire, and one offers up their story—in a language invented for the film by an “archeological consultant”—and thus, we’re immediately introduced, one by one, to our pack of primordial nomads. On top of our leader Adem (played by The Good Doctor actor Chuku Modu) and his extremely pregnant wife Ave (Iola Evans)—and yes, it’s probably safe to assume “Adem and Ave” were names chosen with purpose in this context!—we’ve also got the elder wise-man Odal (Arno Lüning), Adem’s brother Geirr (Kit Young) and tween son Heron (Luna Mwezi), and then the “stray” Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green), a tough-ass teen girl they managed to pick up at some point.
Here, we also learn that the group recently crossed the sea to find themselves a new and better homeland, but instead, they have only found infertile dirt and hostile weather. Their heaven dreams have turned to hell, basically, and now they’re all starving to death. So Adem, in a pique of desperation that he’s even more desperate to not let on to, proposes they all head up into the distant mountains where shelter will provide itself. Caves, baby. The caveman’s best friend, right next to lace-up moccasins and jagged mullets.
No, it’s perhaps not the greatest of plans, given the fact that Ave is enormously pregnant, ready to pop at any moment. But the alternative is painful starvation for everybody, up to and including the unborn baby. And so they begin their days-long trek across the rocky plains to the rocky looking mountains in the gray, rocky distance. (This thing was filmed in the cold, windy Highlands of Scotland, and it shows—you’ll find yourself begging for some of their fur knee-pads halfway through.)
And that’s all the set-up we need and all we get—from there, our gang is just plodding along the misty frosty moors as they get hungrier, angrier, and a little more unhinged with every step. And then you add on the matter of that titular darkness, our old friend, which takes up an entire half of a day—that’s known science even to cave-people.
Even though they’ve been shooting the hell out of their spectacular locations, you can tell that Cumming and his D.P. Ben Fordesman (who also shot the forthcoming Love Lies Bleeding), really relish shooting these night scenes. The inky impenetrable blackness practically pours around the tribe’s ears, around their shoulders, like liquid. Three steps away from the campfire and it swallows them up whole.
Out of Darkness makes you feel that darkness, that emptiness. And then it starts terrifyingly filling it up. The emptiness becomes alive. Full of small noises. Animal sounds? Perhaps just the wind howling? Perhaps a scream? (The killer score is by Adam Janota Bzowski, who also did the music for Saint Maud—all kinds of connections to Rose Glass’s films in the crew here.) And are those steps? Shadows? A glint of something reflecting in the grass? Eyes and movement?
Already on shaky mental and physical ground, it obviously doesn’t take much of a push to get our little band of travelers unraveled, and slowly but surely, Cummings and his sturdy, capable actors do just that. Stumbling into one killing ground is one thing, but another is another, and when people start getting snatched into the night—or even worse, their faces smashed into pulp—it’s a race to the deranged bottom, all bets off, everybody running in every direction and bludgeoning whatever comes their way.
Generally arty in its carriage but really a relentlessly straightforward 90-minute B-movie at its heart, Out of Darkness gets its job done with inventive camerawork and cutting, killer locations and sound work, and solid performances from its unfamiliar cast. The word of the day is “immersive” and this ferocious little thriller slaps the phones right out of our hands and plants us down there alongside our great great great great ad infinitum grandparents, spear in hand, our lizard brains one unfamiliar shriek from taking over completely. And then it unleashes prehistoric hell. Totally solid stuff, a simple and wicked surprise outta nowhere—can’t wait to see what these filmmakers come up with next.