“This film contains flashing lights and hallucinatory images.”
As the opening title card of Darling, this sentence is ostensibly meant as a warning. Darling is an epileptic’s nightmare—the flashing lights and brief images that sit just this side of subliminal would, at any point during the film’s 75-minute run time, trigger potentially catastrophic seizures in the afflicted. But it also serves as a statement of intent. This movie intends to fuck with you, and it lives up to its promises. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either a horror film working in the arthouse idiom or an arthouse film working in the horror idiom. Either way, it’s ripe for leading audiences down a dark and twisting path of confusion and terror, and in that aim it is successful.
Admirably so, in fact. Rare is the movie these days that can illicit feelings of uncomfortable dread in its audiences. Horror has become—arguably, has always been—a genre reliant on cheap scares and familiar tactics to draw in the faithful. Nuance is frowned upon, especially these days. The current philosophy of horror has been one of blood and guts rather than pure psychological terror, to the detriment of the genre as a whole.
Not so with Darling. As a film, it toys with expectations and tropes, lulling you in with familiarity before sending in blind down a path of unrelenting terror—the kind that sinks into your bones and follows you long after the movie is over. It alternately feels like a retread of Psycho, The Shining, and Rosemary’s Baby. Before you have time to roll your eyes at the derivative nature, the script is flipped, becoming a sort of Lynchian amalgamation of traditional tropes that is, despite first appearances, unique and wholly original.
The film opens as the unnamed “Darling” (Lauren Ashley Carter) accepts a job as a house caretaker for the unnamed “Madame” (Sean Young). “Madame”, rushing to fill the position before a months-long trip, glosses over the history of the house, the site of several murders over the years and rumored to be haunted. We then follow “Darling’s” descent into madness as the oppressive loneliness of her position—and possibly Satan—drives her down a homicidal path.
Simple and predictable as that may sound, Darling manages to craft a tautly paced and genuinely terrifying story that feels like madness must. We never really know what’s going on, with “Darling” or with the house. The previously warned of flashing lights and hallucinatory images occur out of nowhere, adding to the sense of confusion and unease that permeates the film.
Shot in glorious black and white, Darling feels, in every sense of the word, timeless. The film offers few clues as to its period inside the house. It’s a story that could just as easily take place in 1950 as today. Furnishings are antiquated, the phones are antique landlines, the clothing is non-descript. While we do get a sense of the proper time period in the few scenes that take place outside the confines of the house, where roughly 90-95% of the movie takes place, the anachronistic feeling adds a sense of confused despair that deepens the terrifying tone.
It’s also largely silent, with the majority of the film being just “Darling” as she wanders the house, exploring its secrets. The silence of the film is broken up by shocking crescendos, which here play like calamitous steps down the stairway of madness as we gain brief insights into the mind of “Darling.” Whether or not her madness is inherent or caused by outside forces is irrelevant. No matter how you look at it, it’s an accurate depiction of the mad mind, shot in stunning and artistic ways.
As the centerpiece of the entire film, young Carter proves herself to be a brilliant and capable actress. Her slow transformation from quiet, diminutive girl into raging psychopath is portrayed masterfully. As an actress, Carter is a name to watch for as this film displays a professional prowess that recalls both the golden and modern age, and suggestive of a range that belies her young age.
Horror purists will find a lot to love about Darling, though the fans of modern schlock will no doubt decry the film for playing on atmosphere and tone more than body count and gore. But that was never what horror should be about. Real horror, the kind that stays with you, eats its way into your skull without you even realizing its happening, and that’s the most remarkable achievement made with Darling. In a world where terror have become synonymous only with gore, it’s fantastic to see a film where the real terror occurs in your mind.
Darling is now playing in select cities and premieres on VOD on April 8.