Review by Daniel Lima
I’ve often wondered what motivated the first storytellers, those who sat around campfires tens of thousands of years ago and told stories of great hunts and capricious gods. While some may have sought self-expression or to capture some ecstatic truth, I imagine most just wanted to keep their audiences entertained, staving off boredom and hunger with wondrous tales that appealed to their basest, most primal sensibilities. Watching Out of Darkness, it’s hard not to think of how the film might benefit from that same instinct.
Set in the Stone Age, the story follows a small band of people searching for a new home. Led by a domineering young man, they journey a vast distance, only to find their supposed salvation entirely barren. The group begins to fracture, their survival seems precarious, and as they travel further in search of food and shelter, it appears they are not alone in this foreign land.
Credit where it’s due; this is an impeccably crafted work. There is an incredible attention to detail in bringing this prehistoric world to life as accurately as possible. The small ensemble is entirely people of color, reflecting what the earliest humans probably looked like. The dialogue is all in a constructed small details language, further immersing both the cast and audience in the setting. The furs they wear, the stone and bone tools they use — every aspect of the film feels carefully realized.
Beyond that, director Andrew Cumming is clearly comfortable with the language of cinema. Shot on location in the Scottish Highlands, the film is often very beautiful, even as the precisely composed images make the vast expanse feel alien and inhospitable. The muted colors feel purposeful, reflecting the bleak outlook of the characters, and at night, the darkness is unceasing and foreboding. In keeping with the discomforting cinematography, there is a methodical pace, never rushing forward with a great burst of energy. Just as the characters feel constrained, fearful that the next forward could be their last, the editing attempts to impart that feeling to the audience.
Yet that sense of restraint and textbook command of cinematic language is also to the movie’s detriment. As formally rigorous as Out of Darkness is, it quickly becomes apparent that this will not indulge in the more immediate thrills of more traditional horror. The visual style comes to feel austere, creating many degrees of removal between the audience and the characters. This lovingly realized world begins to feel like a construct, an artifice that is more a playground for a director to show off their prowess than a backdrop for harrowing human drama.
Obviously, the ambition was not simply to make a Stone Age slasher, and perhaps a decision was made to deliberately eschew the hallmarks of more traditional, populist genre cinema. However, there are lessons to be learned in how those films build and release tension and how they meet and subvert audience expectations. Visceral gore may seem crass, but it can make a monster in the woods feel like a tangible threat. Tight, handheld cinematography may seem a cheap trick, but a handsomely composed shot of people running through the black of night doesn’t convey the same energy. The craft may be respectable, but in avoiding these familiar conventions, Out of Darkness fails to create the immediacy that would make a prehistoric thriller resonate with a modern audience.
Though the presentation is at cross-purposes with the intent to deliver deep-seated horror, Out of Darkness is undeniably accomplished — the work of a dedicated filmmaker and team with a clear vision they wanted to capture. Misapplied as it may be to the material, it’s easy to imagine Cumming putting his command of film craft to good use in the future.
Out of Darkness arrives in theaters February 9