By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Bea Santos, Olunike Adeliyi and Christine Horne
Directed by Audrey Cummings
Written by RJ Lackie
While exploring the harrowing, perception-bending plane of existence summoned forth by the engrossing new film DARKEN (opening across Canada tomorrow), a few lines from Lord Byron come to mind:
Between two worlds life hovers like a star,
‘Twixt night and morn, upon the horizon’s verge.
How little do we know that which we are!
How less what we may be!
Which is to say, director Audrey Cummings (TORMENTED) and screenwriter RJ Lackie prove themselves incredibly adept at conceiving and believably erecting hitherto unseen worlds hidden within worlds. Think an amalgamation of CUBE, TIME BANDITS, THE OUTER LIMITS and Neil Gaiman’s classic urban fantasy novel NEVERWHERE, and you’ll be in the neighborhood. And they deftly imbue this multiverse with a real, affecting and ultimately redemptive humanity.
Here’s the setup: Eve (Bea Santos) knows exactly where she is…yet could not be more lost. She’s a world-weary nurse who, we gather from minimal explication, recently lost a patient and is now grappling with the traumatic aftermath, questioning everything. And then she hears a commotion in an nearby alley. Fate, it seems, has come calling in the form of a stabbing victim—sprawled out on a stretch of apartment steps, bleeding profusely and speaking cryptically of others in desperate need of help still inside the building out of which she tumbled.
Eve answers the call—the visceral immediacy apparently obliterating her ambivalence about nursing in an instant—but the door is locked. Or at least, it is until the dying woman recites a strange incantation: Mother Darken hear our prayer, open the doors and you are there; Mother Darken let me in. The door gives, briefly, and Eve plunges through, but when she turns around the door is gone, an impenetrable wall in its place. It slowly becomes apparent she has crossed a more significant and transcendent threshold, and Eve now finds herself in a strange and surreal labyrinth.
A tough break, sure, though nothing compared to discovering she is also in the middle of a civil war between rebels who want to escape their expansive prison and the Mother Darken-worshipping cult—led by the murderous zealot Clarity (Christine Horne) and her sadistic lieutenant Marti (Ari Millen)—that considers even questioning the circumstances of their surroundings a capital offense punishable by torture, death…or both. Will Eve rise to the occasion? Can she gain the trust and respect of potential warrior allies? Is there some greatness locked inside her that only such a treacherous and deadly world can draw out?
Though the arc of that story might be a bit predictable, neither the visionary setting across which it plays nor the characters who drive it are. There’s a ton of heart, beauty, blood, sweat, tears and triumph packed into these 84 minutes. Of course, we would likely not want to find ourselves marooned in these particular testing grounds, yet there is something attractive about discovering a world not our own, where all the baggage of ourselves and our history falls away, and we are left with the chance to see how our often obscured essence stacks up against profound existential threats. Liberated, could we come out on top in an epic battle? That is the thought experiment DARKEN vicariously offers. It’s a worthwhile journey.