A clock ticks. The mind trips. And the blood drips. In the black and white horror Darling, Mickey Keating takes a minimalistic approach to explore themes of psychological and sexual abuse, as the forsaken subject navigates her personal hell, constructing insurmountable walls and slashing away at her inner demons.
Within the first two chapters of Darling (titled “Her” and “Invocation”), one may easily recognize the cinematic influences of director Keating, yet the offbeat pacing sets the film apart from more formulaic productions of the genre. In New York City, a young woman (Lauren Ashley Carter in a breakthrough performance) arrives for her new caretaking gig at a mansion, albeit one with a bit of dark history. Identified only as “darling” (perhaps in reference to a flipside world of Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s), the wide-eyed brunette familiarizes herself with the high society confines of her new home, even recreating a death walk made by one of the past employees. When “darling” approaches the edge, so to speak, she conveys a façade of both curiosity and ecstasy, intrigued by the darkness yet willfully ignorant of the increasing psychological turmoil that affects her perception of life itself.
Considering both the crisp exterior shots of New York City and the style of the interior visuals, it’s only natural for a cinephile to correlate Darling with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but whereas Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance stays within the walls of the Overlook Hotel, director Keating and cinematographer Mac Fisken have their lead performer out and about, walking the streets, or at least so it appears. The problem, however, is that Carter’s “darling” has given a face to her personal anguish upon accepting her new position, and through a scene highlighting both her sexuality and femininity, the traumatized woman makes a fateful move by inviting a young man (Brian Morvant) up to her pad. Obviously thinking more with his dick than his brain, the gin-drinking patron fails to recognize the noticeable shift in the darling’s demeanor — it’s almost like she’s about to mutate into some type of alien, shortly before crying profusely, alone, in front of a bathroom mirror (Keating, Morvant and Carter also worked together in the 2015 alien invasion film Pod). The darling doesn’t seek a one-night stand, no, she’s a predator ready to sink a set of sharp teeth into her prey. In this case, though, she’s also a victim, but “The Man” doesn’t know that, of course. He can only see what’s right in front of him, blinded by exterior beauty.
“You’re one of the good guys?”
Like so many traumatized individuals, “darling” battles a faceless monster and her own fears that she’s yet to fully acknowledge. The voices persist. A door remains locked. Incidentally, the reality of “darling” becomes increasingly distorted, as she continues to look over her shoulder while the stress continues to fill her body. She looks to the mirror for guidance, but there’s no one there to help. Her sense of self is gone, her spirit robbed, her world flipped upside down.
Whereas Keating’s other collaboration with Carter and Morvant features more of the latter in a painfully over-the-top performance (ALIENS, man!), Darling showcases a star in the making, with the lead actress dominating every second with her graceful movements and a presence that overrides the multitude of unnecessary Psycho-ish stares into the camera. In Pod, Carter has plenty of typical horror “moments” (extended screaming!), but in Darling, she doesn’t just wail out to express the character’s anguish, she somehow manages to transfer the energy to the viewer, making one feel the tension, even when the only sound comes from the the hypnotic score of Giona Ostinelli.
Aesthetically, Darling undeniably captures the mood of Roman Polanski classics, and the bathroom sequences have Kubrick written all over them, but the discussion shouldn’t stop there, as Keating creates an off-kilter frenzy of a film that knows exactly how to pierce the viewer’s psyche, whether it be through nostalgia, genre tricks or, most importantly, through the unique talent of its lead actress. As for Morvant, not only does he look nothing like his Pod character, but he manages to hold his own alongside Carter during a most revealing moment, this coming directly after the “bait” scene, in which he snaps his fingers in the air before exiting like a horny frat boy. If you think about it, the finger snap reveals more about the character than any amount of Nicolas Cage-like rambling could do in Pod. Clearly, Keating had a more precise vision for Darling and it shows. Outstanding pacing. Focused cinematography. The score. The direction. The performances. Forget about the obvious cinematic nods and recognize the real achievements of the film. Darling is an indie horror flick that needs to be seen.
Though six taut chapters of ecstasy and agony, Keating and his enthralling darling pay homage to horror classics while redefining the tonal beats of an evolving genre. Darling is a complex, monochromatic snapshot of a victim’s reaction to painful memories, previously unacknowledged and unfit for an idealistic life that almost seems to be within reach.
Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is a freelance writer and founder/editor of Vague Visages. He graduated from Concordia College (Moorhead, MN) in 2004 with bachelor degrees in Communication-Mass Media and History, and from 2006 to 2012, Q.V. (Quinn) lived in Hollywood, California. He now resides in Fargo, North Dakota.