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John’s Horror Corner: In the Dark (2015), just another demonic possession movie longing for a better budget, more substance, and a less mundane exorcism.

August 8, 2015

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MY CALL:  After the well-executed opening act, this possession film offers little more than illustrating some skills (and some limitations) of a fledgling director.   MORE MOVIES LIKE In the Dark:  In terms of possession movies, I’d instead recommend The Quiet Ones (2014), Case 39 (2009), The Last Exorcism (2010), The Conjuring (2013) and Oculus (2014).  They all offer very different “flavors” of possession with less conventional settings.

Right out of the gates this is beautifully scored with a thought-provoking opening credits sequence hinting at a dark ancient Biblical fable as art student Bethany paints something…something dark.  Immediately we find unsubtle cues of a supernatural presence, followed readily by a…”disturbance.”

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Meanwhile a skeptical graduate student (Veronica) studying parapsychology interviews paranormal researcher Lois about her “verified” cases, the most interesting of which involves possession and exorcism.  Lois is not one to desperately grasp at straws to evidence claims of the otherworldly, rather she is known as the “miracle killer” for debunking 197 of 200 cases.

The acting (all actors being of little experience) is not great, but the director stages his story well.  In one scene, Veronica reviews the 5 stages of a haunting to her boyfriend as she expresses doubt in all things paranormal.  I like this as it gives us (the audience) a way to “measure” the seriousness of the situation.

  1. Hearing footsteps, feelings of being watched, cold spots, noises, odors.

  2. Whispers, laughs, moans, shrieking, moving shadows.

  3. Lights and electrical devices turning on and off, unseen hands touching, writings, open/close doors.

  4. The appearance of apparitions, disappearance of objects, breaking mirrors and glass.

  5. Manifestations of violence.

Lois (with the intention of helping eradicate a supernatural problem) and Veronica (with the intention to debunk the case) visit the troubled Bethany and her mother, who claim to have a paranormal disturbance in their home that’s after Bethany, who shows signs of possession.  She speaks in a voice that couldn’t possibly be hers, vomits a 5″ nail and gradually becomes more physically disheveled.  As Bethany’s “symptoms” advance, her behavior and appearance become more overt.

At this point in the film, I feel some credibility is lost during this transition—and, subsequently, more credibility is later lost.  The contortion scene failed to capture my attention and Bethany’s episodes of violence feel more than a bit forced.  What’s more is that her behavior is straight out of the “possession movie playbook” with no inklings of clever nuance to make these possession scenes stand out.  We aren’t really offered any different “versions” of the classic symptoms we’ve seen a dozen times before.  There is little gore (not that gore is important here), limited to vomiting black bile and a stabbing.  The make-up is decent and special attention was paid to Bethany’s corrupted skin and teeth.

Lois strongly suspects possession whereas Veronica questions an overworked abusive mother or Bethany’s past head trauma to be the cause of their problems.  Of course, the supernatural element becomes increasingly undeniable as we move towards confronting the “Gehenna demons” controlling her.

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The dialogue falls into the trap of over-exposition, explaining every detail in the dialogue of the demon(s) and characters to such length that it feels like a chore to listen.  Early in the film this was of negligible consequence as the dialogue felt more natural.  But as the film progresses it begins to wear on me.  I take that back, it’s becoming significantly annoying.  Even in a world in which demonic possession exists, I find this level of gross over-explanation implausible.  The demon characer is the worst of all.  “This is what I am, this is what I don’t like, this is what I want, and this is how I’ll get it.”  Basically the words of the demon summarized.  Later the demon’s dialogue shifts to pure melodrama–even for a possession film.  This is unfortunate.  Show me, don’t tell me.  When you tell me too much it informs me that you perhaps don’t know how to show me.  This dialogue is all too often explained instead of shown in context.

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I also didn’t feel that the characters were responding appropriately (i.e., reasonably or credibly) to what they were seeing and experiencing.  Their emotions typically didn’t match the scene, the lines or the urgency–except for the mother, she was emotionally on point.  Overall, the writing just wasn’t there and things really fell apart approaching and during the exorcism.

Written and directed by horror newcomer David Spaltro, this film’s first act showed the signs of a promising director.  Spaltro stages things well with a good premise (i.e., debunking the paranormal goes wrong), creating anticipation and mood when weighing the opening credit sequence, the first paranormal events and Veronica’s skepticism.  Introducing the “5 stages of a haunting” may appear to some to be formulaic, but when Veronica explained it to her boyfriend it felt as if it arose organically.  I was being primed for something great and I enjoyed the delivery.  But the second half of this film is indicative that this director would better serve his audience with a more experienced writer penning the script.  Sorry, it had to be said.

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I’d like to see what David Spaltro could do with his vision if handed a script–or, perhaps, if he had more freedom.  Ultimately, I didn’t get anything  great here.  However, I feel that Spaltro’s proven skills have greatness in them.  He just needs the right script and I am left to wonder if my perceived writing flaws weren’t the hand of a writer/director whose hand was forced by his producers.  And someone give this guy a budget to play around with.  He staged some creepy atmosphere in the early scenes.  I’d love to see what more he can do.

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