Dark RemainsReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/30/06 10:59:49
SCREENED AT THE 2006 BOSTON FANTASTIC FILM FESTIVAL: If you're going to see or rent "Dark Remains", you probably like horror movies and ghost stories. The thing is, if you like horror movies and ghost stories, you've probably seen something very much like "Dark Remains" more than a few times, and though worse iterations of this story have made it through the production process, it probably wouldn't be hard to hunt down better ones.We start, of course, with bodies - a woman slitting her wrists, a man shooting himself, and, after the credits, a yuppie could finds their adorable daughter murdered in her own bed, despite there being no sign whatsoever of forced entry. Allen (Greg Thompson), a technical writer, and Julie (Cheri Christian), a fine-art photographer, cope with the loss by moving out to the country, leasing a house whose last tenants committed suicide. The town, naturally, has a history of suspicious deaths, including the mother of Jim (Scott Hodges), the creepy caretaker. There's also an abandoned prison that Julie is strangely drawn to, and the local sheriff (Jeff Evans) wants to keep an eye on Allen, what with the unsolved mystery of a child murdered in a house Julie claims had been locked up tight. And, of course, after one night in the house, their visiting friends high-tail it out of there and advise Allen and Julie to follow.
They don't, of course. There are dead people to briefly spot out of the corner of their eyes, old newspapers to search through, late-night visits to shuttered prisons to be made, local people to turn psychotic, and investigations that must get nowhere. And, of course, when developing pictures in her darkroom, Julie must occasionally think she sees her dead daughter. (This movie looked to be shot on digital video, and I wonder if at any point during these scenes writer/director/editor Brian Avenet-Bradley considered that ironic.) The script is remarkably thorough in compiling potential supernatural and conventional explanations for what's going on. That isn't necessarily a bad idea; uncertainty about the nature of the threat is often more effective than knowing exactly what one should be afraid of, especially early in a story. This movie is just a little too vague for a little too long.
It does supply jumps at a decent clip, and the director and his brother, producer/cinematographer Laurence Avenet-Bradley, do a pretty good job of setting those up without leaning too hard on the soundtrack. Happily, they don't always go for the simple jump. There's plenty of dark corners from which scary things can emerge - the film walks the fine line between atmospheric and simply under-lit - and it might sometimes take the audience a few seconds to note that there's something on-screen that maybe shouldn't be there. That's a tricky tool to use, and the filmmakers don't always handle it as well as they might. Sometimes I yipped in surprise, but all too often I wished I was watching at home so I could rewind and see if there really had been something significant there and just what it was (and me wishing I was home while seeing a movie in a theater is not generally associated with satisfaction). Others may have a different reaction, of course, depending how well they spot things.
I think I might have been more interested if it seemed like either Julie or Allen was a good suspect for their daughter's murder. Cheri Christian does do a nice job of being haunted by the event; we can believe she's either more tuned into the horrible or willing to believe in the supernatural because it opens up the possibility of seeing Emma again. It's not a hugely charismatic performance, and it doesn't help that she's got to work around going from being adamantly against staying to being adamantly against leaving seemingly on a dime, but it's believable; there's no doubt that this woman has been crushed. I wasn't quite so enamored with Greg Thompson as Allen; he doesn't seem to do much except leg work for much of the movie, and the character doesn't seem to have a very strong individual personality. Even when he's being patronizing toward Julie, it never seems like it's because that's who he is; it's just what the script needs to have done. So he winds up being just this guy in the middle of a ghost story, an audience surrogate when the film needs him to be part of the story.
I admire what seems to be the basic idea behind the story, even if it's not a new one: Characters who are haunted by a loss finding themselves perhaps being literally haunted. It's simple, but effective, like horror stories should be (the more elemental the feeling, the better). Dark Remains gets so tangled up in various threads that it can't really join the supernatural stuff with the feelings of loss, so rather than being a ghost story that is emotionally strong enough to put the audience through a wringer, it feels more like one where there should be rules and types of hauntings that can be researched and acted on.Except there aren't, and the movie fizzles a bit. There's worse troubles for a low-budget horror movie to have than not being able to live up to its storytelling ambitions - imagine if this didn't even have any scary moments! - but that sort of "good problem" more indicates potential than present quality. Someday, we may talk about Brian Avenet-Bradley and say "even back in 'Dark Remains', you can see how he wants to make good character-focused horror", but that day's not here yet.
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