12th Apr2015

BIFFF 2015: ‘From the Dark’ Review

by Stuart Wright

Stars: Niamh Algar, Stephen Cromwell, Ged Murray, Gerry O’Brien | Written and Directed by Conor McMahon

from-the-dark-cast

From The Dark is the latest feature film from Stitches writer/director Conor McMahon. Where his Irish horror comedy, starring Ross Noble, played for bloody, gross out laughs and utilised an extensive cast to tell its tale, From The Dark is a vampire movie about a couple trapped on a remote peat farm.

However, this inaugural viewing by Nerdly is not under normal press screening conditions. Your reviewer is in Brussels, Belgium for his first ever Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFFF) experience. Before the film the queue snaking its way around the whole of the basement of the Brussels Centre For Fine Arts created a real sense of excitement and anticipation. For this newbie it was no indication of what was to follow once we sat down and waited for the lights to go down.

Whooping and cheering welcomed McMahon (and his producer Kate McColgan) to the stage like it was a rock concert. This should have been a clue as to what was to follow, but given the context it was still a surprise when the BIFFF host insisted, no, demanded McMahon and McColgan sing us a song. McMahon admitted his nerves had been shredded waiting for this moment to arrive… Nevertheless, him and McColgan gave us a heartfelt and entertaining rendition of Molly Malone – just the tonic to satisfy the expectant group of horror fiends. And then the film started…

Like a horror version of Sing-A-Long-A-Sound Of Music, mixed with the instinctive humour of a soccer crowd, a whole of new way of watching a genre film unravelled right before this reviewers eyes. Random, knowing jeers and cries from around the auditorium were just an aperitif, because once recognisable horror tropes revealed themselves, a dialogue was immediately struck up between the film and its audience – and never ended until the closing credits rolled on by. When Mark (played by Stephen Cromwell) is separated from his girlfriend Sarah (played by Niamh Algar) and wandering alone in the farmhouse, shouting – as protagonists have a habit of doing in horror films – ‘Hello’ into the dark silence of every room he enters, the auditorium reacted like this:

Mark – Hello?
Audience – Yoohoo!
Mark – Hello?
Audience – Yoohoo!

The enthusiasm for this simple in-joke never waned for the duration of the movie. Just like the ‘HOWLS’ that greeted every full moon. It’s easy to see how this experiential way of watching a horror film could make a bad film more fun, but an obsessive, used to watching stuff at home alone, may worry it could ruin a good film. Far from it. The participation showed a real reverence for McMahon’s art as much as it satisfied the extroverted Brussels crowd. It never went too far and only ever seemed to elevate the film. For example there’s a rather dramatic moment where a digit is about to be chiselled off. The audience seized upon this with a slow handclap long before it happened. That extended period of dread, with a room baying for blood, only served to make this horror moment all the more memorable. In some senses, the way McMahon chose to drag this trying incident out made it seem like he had prepped the audience beforehand… although our theatrical cheers were much more joyous than the characters pained cries.

So what of the film. The lead monster is unapologetically taken straight from Nosferatu (1922), but the intense, claustrophobic actions of Cromwell and Algar take their cues from the likes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s (1974), among others. However, an early stamp of quality isn’t a scary one. As Mark and Sarah drive through Ireland enjoying each others company before bickering over the whys and wherefores of marriage, McMahon uses these scenes to show off his smart and efficient writing of character. By the time they reach their first obstacle – car stuck in a muddy road – you already feel emotionally invested in the couple and convinced they had a life with each other long before the film started. Consequently we care about them so much more once it all starts to go horribly wrong. This is a crucial, and oft overlooked element of modern horror films whose race to the scary set pieces means characters are just fodder to kill in interesting ways. Certainly, in Algar as his lead female he has unearthed a real acting talent from nowhere. In the Q & A that followed McMahon told us that she was the receptionist at an actors workshop he led; and when one of his actors failed to turn up, leaving him a body short, he convinced her to take part. Her natural abilities shone brightly that day and stuck with him. When it came to casting From The Dark he knew she would be right for the job. He wasn’t wrong.

McMahon directs with a real confidence and in his writing he displays a true understanding of drama, as well as what genre fan boys and girls will demand from the experience – including those attending BIFFF. It’s a very accomplished piece of cinema and the setting of the Irish peat farm means that From The Dark lends the vampire sub-genre something we haven’t seen before; and the stripped down cast of just two young people in peril is stretched fully without any filler.

It was a new type of film fun to watch From The Dark with the enthusiastic BIFFF crowd, but I’m sure it would be just as entertaining without the exalted hullabaloo… Although it’s safe to say I’d recommend both From The Dark and BIFFF audience participation in equal measure.

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