Darling (2016)

Darling is director Mickey Keating's follow-up to the recently released Pod. We say "follow-up," but apart from starring literally 2/3 of the cast of Pod, Darling is a totally different movie. You can tell from the trailer (which you can and should check out below) that the tone and feel of this movie is a stark departure from Keating's Pod. Was he successful? Well you'll just have to read on friend. Unless you're worried about spoilers, because those hit you hard and fast below the trailer. Let us know by twitter or in the comments if you agree!

 
 

Mark: Darling. This is the second Mickey Keating flick we’ve reviewed in as many months. How bout them apples?

Jake: Fuck. Last week you don’t even help me in my time of need when I was trying to get through The Bermuda Triangle, and now you just show up making Matt Damon quotes? Wrong foot to start off on, man. Where’s Jack?   What’s his excuse this time?

Mark: He actually really didn’t have an excuse. You yahoos are just dumb enough to think I’m competent enough to string bunch of word together loosely pertaining to movies that we watch.

Jake: I assure you, it was more along the lines of you proving that you aren’t too competent for this operation. “Bunch of word?” Jesus. Aren’t editors supposed to be, y’know, literate?

Mark: Well Jack’s the editor this week so... maybe. Anyway, Darling. Like I said up top, this is the second Keating film we’ve reviewed and the dude certainly has a style. He loves his long takes and his strobe lights, but at least this time they come with a warning. Darling is a movie about the eponymous young girl who takes over as caretaker for an old New York City mansion. Why does it need caring for? Unexplained. What do her duties entail in her role as caretaker? Ambiguous. Unless of course she has to keep the place in tip top shape by lighting cigarettes on the spider burners.

She's clearly just trying to become the next Dice by smoking cigarettes in 'cool' ways.

She's clearly just trying to become the next Dice by smoking cigarettes in 'cool' ways.

Jake: Yeah, we’ve seen some Keating flicks lately. Dude is churning out genre films left and right, and I was pretty excited to see this one back when we took a look at the trailer. All we get at the beginning is that she is going to be overseeing the proceedings at the mansion, and the owner (?), referred to as “Madame”, gives a small bit of exposition about how it may or may not be haunted. They’ve had trouble keeping caretakers in the past, and the last one might have killed herself. Allegedly. You know, the minor things. Unimportant, really.

Mark: For whatever reason, and realistically there is literally none, the movie is broken up into six chapters. I suppose if you really want to go to bat for the film makers, the chapters do split the narrative up fairly well into different segments. But you know what else does that? Normal goddamn story telling. Anyway, “Chapter 1: Her” provides the intro and the closest thing the movie has to exposition on the background of the house and Darling’s character.

Jake: I actually really liked the chapter style approach to this flick. I can’t necessarily defend it from a logical standpoint, because like you said, it really didn’t need chapters. At all. I just liked them. Typically, cards like this are thrown up to help illustrate progression of time (The Shining, Black Mountain Side etc.), but let’s just get this out of the way early. This movie has A LOT of art for art’s sake to it. To build on that theme they liberally cut in shots of the New York City skyline to establish the setting.

Because art. That's why.

Because art. That's why.

Mark: I mean I don’t really want to say that’s intrinsically a bad thing either. As long as it doesn’t interfere with the content of the film I don’t have a problem with it, and I don’t think it does in this case as long as you’re okay with the black and white thing.

Jake: Right. You don’t stumble into a tone in Darling. It hits you with it immediately. The black and white treatment isn’t going to be for everyone, just like the chapter-based formula and long sequence of exposition to kick off the film won’t be for everyone.

Mark: It get’s off to a pretty slow start, but I guess that’s about par for the course, eh bud? There’s some generally eerie shots and you get a sense of the loneliness in the house. There’s a room on the top floor of the building that she’s not allowed to go into, as if that’s not a red flag for a house sitter. Oh, that? Yeah, that’s just our murder closet. Don’t worry about it. Keep it locked.

Jake: The most noticeable aid to creating a feel for the film was the general lack of sound. I found the silence in this movie pretty noticeable from the jump, and it’s certainly by design. Keating’s long takes are bolstered by the incessant ticking of a clock as the girl begins to get a feel for her surroundings. It’s really only broken throughout the film by jarring instances of telephone rings or bursts of score, and it creates a sort of character for the house. I noticed more than a few similarities in how this made me feel with The Overlook Hotel in the Shining. Darling lulls you into a sort of trance as Lauren Ashley Carter (eponymous ‘Darling’) goes about her business in the mansion, only to methodically break you out of it to further the plot.

Mark: The only thing about these movies where there’s basically no dialogue or sounds is that I’m constantly befuddled as to why they can’t just turn on the radio or something. You brought the crazy on yourself, Darling. That’s nobody’s fault but your own.

Jake: While “Her” was really just the table setting for the film, things get going in “Chapter 2: Invocation”. We have an indication by this point in the film that Darling has some something troubling her. We don’t know what it is, but dream sequences and epileptic-fit inducing visions begin very early on and only grow in number and intensity throughout the second act. It’s a descent into madness, and I think the general lack of character development for Darling actually helps its cause. You don’t need a bunch of backstory written in about what’s going on in this crazy girl’s head. Strobe lights and premonitions (flashbacks? Who knows) certainly let you know there’s some fucked up stuff at play.

Mark: This actually brings up an interesting point about the way Darling is shot. Keating loves his long takes, but he also employs this really intense editing style throughout the film where the long shots are aggressively punctuated by these short, stabbing, “hallucinogenic” images, generally of Darling putting on makeup or smirking or being otherwise devilish. It makes for a movie that is without true “jump scares” but still provides them through editing. It’s not something that you see frequently, and I actually rather like the style that it brings to the film. Not only does it ratchet up how uncomfortable it makes you as an audience member, but it also ties into the overall theme of losing your mind.

Jake: Definitely. In fairness, she doesn’t seem to do much of anything at the mansion other than make sure it doesn’t burn down or collapse in on itself and get sucked into another dimension a la the house in Poltergeist. She’s probably bored shitless. Mix that with her instability and add to it the possibility that the place is legitimately haunted, and you’re in the danger zone. She’s a ticking fucking time bomb. Even in the sparse instances where she does leave its friendly confines, it doesn’t go well. Take, for example, a regular morning grocery run. She drops a necklace she found in one of the house's dressers that is almost certainly demonic and a guy tries to return it to her. Like a gentleman. She flips out and flings apples all over the goddamn place while a vision of some sort of past wrong (an attack or rape) floods her senses.

 

I mean . . . not very much. Weren't you paying attention just now?

 

Mark: Here it is we get one of the first traditional “scary” scenes of the movie. Darling is lying in bed when she sees something behind the camera. She stares at it, essentially just looking directly at the camera, and we can see the door to the bedroom start to move behind her. Nothing particularly dramatic happens except that the door opens slowly, then slams shut, and she yelps and get’s up to investigate. Once she returns to bed we get to see what she was staring at, which is the phrase “abyssus abyssum invocat” scratched into the bedside table. As I am able to speak fluent latin, just slowly and through an online translator, I can tell you that this phrase roughly translates to “one misstep leads to another,” or more literally “hell calls hell.” Given the liberal use of the phone ringing as a sound effect I’m positive it’s supposed to be the latter.

Jake: This is obviously a reference to the compilation album of Polish extreme metal band, Behemoth. If there’s one thing we know about Mickey Keating, it’s that he really loves his death metal.

Mark: I was actually hoping they’d do more with the phrase, but it’s basically just shoehorned in once or twice and never really used as a device. I’m sure Keating, who also wrote the movie, would tell you something along the lines of how it is supposed to refer to Darling’s increasingly dark tendencies, but without any more context I’m just going to chalk it up to art for art’s sake.

Jake: Can’t really argue any of that, but can we get back to actually talking about the movie? Darling is clearly affected by her chance encounter with random act of kindness guy, played by Brian Morvant. Whether she’s just slipping further and further into bonkersville, is being overtaken by some malevolent something in that house (probably from the aforementioned murder closet) or she knows this dude and that flashback was of something he did to her in the past, she starts following him. This brings us to “Chapter 3, Thrills!”. Darling follows Morvant to a bar and strikes up a conversation with him. One of the few in the film. Darling is awkward and creepy, and Morvant does an excellent job of playing the confused guy as he tries to figure out the situation. And maybe get lucky.

Mark: I’m really starting to like Brian Morvant. The dude consistently brings it and jumps off the screen. Granted this role is a significantly more confined one than his one in Pod, but I still really liked his scenes. One thing though, do people really go to bars to order “two gins, please.”? Fucking New Yorkers.

 
Only if the bar doesn't have a sign and they serve the gin in weird glasses.

Only if the bar doesn't have a sign and they serve the gin in weird glasses.

 

Jake: What? You don’t casually shoot gin like Darling? That’s why bars exist man. Live a little. Anyway, after she tosses a few gins back, she invites Morvant back to her place. Because he’s a dude, he ignores the fact that the chat they just had was about as enlightening as talking to a fucking wall, and follows her back to the mansion. When they arrive, we get a little more substance on the reputation for the house. He grew up in the city and has clearly heard stories, lending credence to the place actually being haunted.

Mark: This part of the film (well this one and the very first intro part) kinda shine a light on one of my least favorite parts about Keating movies. It just doesn’t seem like he can really get good dialogue out of his actors. That’s actually one reason why Darling shines pretty well as a film, there isn’t a lot of dialogue to get hung up on. Granted, Darling is supposed to be spiraling round the insanity drain, but still Carter’s delivery is about as awkward and difficult as it could possibly be. This is probably what they wanted, but I found it hard to swallow even at the level where she was becoming a murderous psychopath.  

Jake: I’ll agree with you that the dialogue was a little stilted, but I wasn’t negatively impacted by it, and actually thought the awkwardness in the characters’ conversation helped distance Darling from Morvant by providing a platform for comparison between what someone who is sane sounds like versus someone who is decidedly not sane. Add to it that the entire conversation is difficult to hear because of the swell of dissonant strings that starts up once they get inside and I think it actually worked pretty well. It’s still difficult to tell what their backstory is (if any), but she comments on his name being Henry Sullivan, and very quickly goes from pouring drinks to bleeding the guy like a hog. Brutally killing off Morvant with a knife of some sort is another Keating staple, so I really should have seen it coming...

Mark: The movie really kicks into high gear all of sudden. I mean you know something’s up from the amount of stalking she’s been doing, and the psychopathic camera staring she does in the rapid fire editing between scenes, but yeah she just kinda goes for it. Morvant is mid-sentence when he gets stabbed right in the liver. The manner in which she does it is actually so surprising that I kinda buy that he wouldn’t have defended himself. There’s hardly enough time to even process that she has a knife.

Jake: It was nuts. I thought both actors did a really great job in this scene, with Carter’s intensity and Morvant’s confusion playing well together. The stabbing itself was also hard to watch, as she turned the knife inside of him. As brutal and visceral as the stabbing is however, apparently it’s not enough to kill this nice gentleman. “Chapter 4: Demon” begins with Morvant startling Darling by breathing again after some time. She does as anyone of us would and responsibly duct tapes a black plastic garbage bag over his head to seal the deal.

And when it's your turn, make sure you go name brand. It's about standards people. Come on.

And when it's your turn, make sure you go name brand. It's about standards people. Come on.

Mark: One of the first scenes in this chapter is actually a nice reprieve from the brutal murdering sequence. Basically it’s a long take of Darling trying to drag Morvant into the bathroom. Carter is what, like 100 lbs, and Brian Morvant is probably about 175? Anyway, it’s a long take of her awkwardly moving the body, and in a weird way I actually found the scene kinda charming. Where normally you’d expect this to be edited out and they’d just cut to her flopping his body into a bathtub, they show the whole process. I think it adds a bit of realism to the transition, and also acts to give the audience a breather, plus it hearkens back to one of the earlier scenes in the movie where she struggles to pull her own suitcase up the stairs of the house. That’s some nice symmetry right there.

Jake: Ok, guy. A couple things. First, guessing people's’ weight is a lose-lose proposition. Like politics or the integrity of the NCAA, it's best just not even broach the subject because someone’s going to get all sensitive about it. Second, you calling that scene “charming” has me a little on-edge about your own stability. We good to keep going here?

ark: I mean, I am. I'm not the one who's going to end up in a Husky garbage bag. I mean . . . what are we talking about?

Jake: Right . . . getting increasingly worried about why Jack isn't writing this week. In any case, the best scene in “Demon” is a nightmare sequence Carter has about Morvant’s dead, plastic-bag-headed corpse getting up out of the tub and coming into the bedroom to attack her. It was edited in an extremely effective way, with the jittery movement horror fans know and love. Solid stuff.

* Editor's note * Jack (me) is alive (thank god, I know), and also this post is not sponsored by Husky. Yet. Seriously, Husky, call us, we're cheap.

Mark: Yeah that whole scene was incredibly unsettling. Being assaulted by a possessed dead body is one of my biggest fears. I mean, not like it’s a specific phobia of mine or anything, just why would it not be? The other thing to note is that the attack in the dream sequence also very closely mirrors the attack in the flashback back when Darling first met Morvant’s character. At this point you’re still trying to piece together the connection between this fellow and our protagonist, and the similarity between these scenes begins to shed some light on their background. One other thing I want to say about this scene though: the sound is terrible. It took an otherwise sufficiently creepy scene and just made it obnoxious as hell. It’s just an onslaught of this super high pitched mosquito noise that is shrill and monotonous.

Jake: It’s funny you say that because I was just about to praise the sound design of the film even more. I loved it from start to finish. The scene where she is cleaning up the mess in the dining room is again set only to the droning sound of the clock. It’s a metronome that’s only broken, again, by the telephone ringing. I thought there was good balance between the sequences like those and the more intense ones which are accompanied by shrill strings. And speaking of intense scenes, the next chapter is exactly that. “Chapter 5: Inferno” involved Darling taking a hacksaw and a hammer into the bathroom and completely dismembering Morvant’s body.

Mark: Why the hell did she bring the hammer though? Who uses a hammer to dismember someone, honestly? It kinda shows her using it to do something to his jaw, maybe pry his teeth out, but it’s blocked by her body. Besides, hasn’t she seen Breaking Bad? There are better ways to get rid of a body in a bathtub.

Jake: True. Probably because art. Anyway,it’s not until after the job is done and she’s got homeboy’s body tied up in a neat bag that she takes a long look at his driver’s license to realize his name isn’t Henry Sullivan, it’s James Abbot. Whoops!

 
It's the kind of classic mix-em-up that Archie and the gang were always finding themselves in. Hilarious.

It's the kind of classic mix-em-up that Archie and the gang were always finding themselves in. Hilarious.

 

Mark: So this is about where the movie gets real confusing. We know from her earlier conversation with the Madame that “Dr. Abbott” was one of her previous references who they hadn’t been able to contact. Are these two the same? Did she kill Sullivan or Abbott? I think there’s a lot of different theories you could flesh out from this, but the main problem is that I’m not sure the movie really knows which story it’s trying to tell you.

Jake: I’d love to hear your theories on this one. I don’t really understand what you mean about the movie not knowing which story it's trying to tell. Seems like it's one of a troubled girl going absolutely bananas in a haunted house and killing a stranger for reasons that made sense in her fits of insane rage.

Mark: Jake, you ignorant slut. It could be that, but it could also be a few other things. The way I sees it, there’s two other options. Option 1: Darling is a bit of serial killer. She was raped, or otherwise assaulted by the Abbott character, and she travels from town to town exacting her revenge upon whoever she hallucinates him as being. Poor Henry Sullivan was just a dude who her brain associated with the attack and latched onto as her target. I actually lean more this way than the other owing the way the phone call unfolds later. The problem, though, is that in this world, the haunted house aspect of the film is essentially pointless and the fact that the film goes so far out of its way to illustrate that things aren’t right with the house makes the whole exercise completely pointless.

 
 

Jake: Yeah, I mean, I guess I could see that but I’m pretty sure that’s not what they were going for. She could just be traveling from town to town killing Henry Sullivans and falsifying references in order to keep getting work. But I think you’re right, if that’s the point of darling’s story, then why does everyone and their dog think this house is haunted? Why is there a must-keep-locked demon summoning murder closet on the top floor?

Mark: Well, righto bud. That segues nicely into option 2, the house is haunted by the spirit of a girl who was assaalted, and continuously replicates this cycle of murder-as-revenge-for-rape upon innocent bystanders. It possesses and uses the “darlings” to kill their various Henry Sullivans and then kill themselves in various manners in order to allay their grief. This one seems like the one the movie is trying to go for from a narrative standpoint. The problems come from the phone call that we get later on in the story between Darling and the caretaker.

Jake: You sound as insane as her, man. Jesus. Anyway, her conversation with the owner is another scene that felt like something straight out of The Shining. Her whole conversation with the owner is one where she is going with her absolute best Jack Torrance. I had a really hard time deciding whether it was an important conversation in terms of the plot, or if Keating was just layering on how far gone Darling is at this point.  

Mark: So it’s basically impossible to hear what the other side of the conversation is. I had to turn my volume up to max and scare my cats and piss off my fiancee, but that’s the kind of heat I’m willing to take over these reviews. Here’s basically how the conversation goes: “We got in contact with your previous reference, Dr. Abbott. You never worked for his family, did you? We know what he did to you. We’re not mad, we just want you to leave.” This seems to support theory one from above, the one that basically directly contradicts the obviously haunted house aspect of the story. My guess? We have two overlapping stories, and Darling is a serial killer who moves into a haunted house. Hilarity ensues.

Jake: Well holy fuck. I am genuinely starting to think that you are more far gone than Darling. The rest of the final act, “Chapter 6: The Caretaker”, consists mainly of Darling taking a knife up to the locked room and prying that bitch open. We don’t see what’s in there, becuase art for art’s sake, but it seems to cause some distress. Not really any more than she’s been showing for the previous 30 minutes of the movie, mind you, but distress nonetheless.

Mark: So here’s another Keating trademark: scenes that are reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino movies. Is her staring at the unseen janitorial murder closet not exactly like Vincent Vega looking into the briefcase from Pulp Fiction? If so, does that mean that she’s staring directly into her soul? I kinda doubt that’s where they were going but, whatever, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. She stares into her soul and apparently doesn’t like what she sees. She responds appropriately by throwing herself off the roof of the building.

Jake: This was something that was foreshadowed pretty heavily at several points in the film, so we were waiting for it. It made sense at this point in the proceedings as well, as the fuzz have arrived and are beginning to dive into that little trash bag of horrors while she is mid-swan dive to the Manhattan streets below. Exit the caretaker. That makes at least two in a row for the house, and one big headache for the owner, to be sure.

Mark: Or, you know, completely minor headache because this seems to be about par for the course. One thing to note is that there’s a bit of an after-the-credits scene in this movie. Really it’s just a mid-credits thing like the Starscream bit from the first Transformers movie. Anyway, it’s basically a repeat of the first scene but with a new girl as Darling, more or less showing that the cycle repeats itself in this house and further confusing the narrative that the script is trying to sell.

Jake: I’m not sure. There’s always the out that any of this could have happened or could have been a fabrication. When in doubt, always say fuck it and play the insanity card.

Mark: Sure, why get into a discussion about mental health and emotional stability when you can easily sidestep it. Let’s just say that the whole thing was a hallucination. Worked for general hospital. That all being said, what was your take on whether or not, within the fictional world of the film, any of this actually happened?

Jake: I'd give it about the same odds as any of this fucking fever dream we've scrawled out here having actually happened: Hopefully low. Let's rate:


RATINGS (1-10):

For 1, think of how Rebecca De Mornay would rate you trying to donate a book that's been in the bathroom with you, you sick fuck:

 
 

For 10, think of how Hannibal Smith would rate a plan coming together:

 
 

STORY:

Mark: 5 - There’s really not a lot of story here. Girl moves in, girl meets boy, girl kills boy, girl kills self. Even within that relatively straightforward plot there seem to be at least two competing narratives where you either end up saying that the house being haunted was a total coincidence or that everything is a hallucination. Neither of those outcomes are particularly interesting from a story standpoint. That being said the story is altogether bad, and I’d like to give it the benefit of the doubt that there actually is a cohesive story being told and it just went over my head.

Jake: 7 - Let’s be clear. This isn’t a squeaky clean story. I think one could watch it and walk away from a viewing taking it as having been about a girl going off the rails, with or without the aid of ghosts in the house. Fine. However, due to some of the relatively hidden clues, you can have a more in depth conversation about the role of Madame, the locked room, the cycle of caretakers etc. I like stories that can spark a conversation like that.

WORLD-BUILDING / IMMERSION:

Mark: 7 - It’s surprising how much a lack of dialogue can pull you into a movie. Instead of being able to listen along as you do other things you’re forced to sit and watch, and that’s a good thing. I also really enjoyed the editing with the extended long takes bringing a sense of realism to the scene, and then punctuating them with short glimpses into Darling’s madness to remind the viewer of her descent.

Jake: 7 - The editing in this thing was pretty great. I’ll get to that later, but net net, I was pretty invested in this one. Not checking my phone is a good measuring stick for my level of immersion, and I didn’t check my phone once.

SCARE-FACTOR:

Mark: 6 - There were basically one or two creepy parts of the film. Demon is legitimately creepy nightmare fuel. The scene of the the cadaver stumbling out of the tub is one for the books. The scene where abyssus abyssum invocat is originally shown was also extremely well executed. The rest of the scares come from the creative editing, where you basically get a jump scare from a jump cut to Darling leering at you. It’s actually an interesting and creative method of generating jump scares, but it’s also a tad lazy. For the record, I had Pod at a 7 (due entirely to the basement scene). I still say Pod is the scarier movie, but Darling is a strong entrant and is great case study in what can be done effectively on a budget.

Jake: 6 - There are a few scary scenes like the dream of Morvant getting out of the bathtub, and I loved the initial door-closing scene. I’ll also attribute the brutal nature of the stabbing and dismemberment scenes, which still felt very intense despite the black and white filming, to this category. It was a relatively effective film.

EFFECTS (OR JUDICIOUS LACK THEREOF):

Mark: 3.5 - I’m afraid I seem to have prematurely blown my load on editing in the immersion category. Editing aside, there’s not a ton to talk about here. The sound effects during the demon attack really threw me out of an otherwise great scene. The editing jump scares are interesting from a scare standpoint, but also headache and seizure inducing. I kinda half think that Keating might be trying to kill someone via strobe light just to build the mythos.

Jake: 5 - There was art here, both for the better and worse. Loved the sound design, and I also liked a lot of the visual editing in that I felt it aided the viewer in feeling uncomfortable while watching Darling’s descent into madness.

OVERALL:

Mark: 5.5 - Although I liked this movie it just ended up coming off as less than the sum of its parts. I’m not really sure what it was missing, but the art for art’s sake aspect of it seemed to confuse aspects of the plot to the point where it distracted from the overall experience. That being said this actually was an enjoyable experience as long as I never ever have to hear that “Demon” sound effect ever again.

Jake: 7 - I’m about the exact opposite. I rarely apply a tilt to my score, but I found there to be some synergies in this movie. I thought both Carter and Morvant were excellent, and just had a good time watching this intense ride. I was pleasantly surprised, and I’d recommend genre fans definitely give it a watch.