When watching films, it can be a source of joy or frustration to see the obvious – and not-so-obvious – places where writers and directors source their themes and aesthetics. Many people – filmgoers and critics alike – bemoan the lack of originality in today’s cinematic world, and use it as a crutch to foretell the medium’s overly dramatic, inevitable, and (always) apocalyptic demise. That being said, picking up on nods and homages has long been my method of relating even the most disparate of films to each other, and citing how old ideas, employed in a fresh and creative way, can indeed inspire bold and, yes, original works of art (cinematic and otherwise). Granted, the opposite is always possible, but just because a film makes its influences known doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a rip-off, or any less deserving of a viewer’s time and attention. As part of an inaugural series here on Loud Green Bird, I am going to examine the antecedents to writer-director Mickey Keating’s 2015 horror sleeper, Darling. (Warning: the final segment of this analysis contains spoilers, so I recommend watching the film prior to reading.)
PLOT: Darling (Lauren Ashley Carter) takes a caretaker position at the beautiful townhouse of Madame (Sean Young), only to find herself descending into paranoia and madness.
Keating’s strongest influence is Roman Polanski, who created his classic “Apartment Trilogy” beginning with 1965’s groundbreaking psychosexual horror, Repulsion; continued with the Ira Levin adaptation Rosemary’s Baby in 1968; and concluded with The Tenant in 1976. The former two films also feature female leads who are led down paths of fear that originate with sexuality, either blatant (unexpected pregnancy under dubious circumstances in Rosemary’s) or willfully suppressed (Repulsion). While the sexual aspect of Darling is more understated, it nevertheless comes out in the lead character’s awkward encounters with The Man (Brian Morvant). Despite the story being centered in a major city (ostensibly Manhattan, though it’s never specified), the townhouse contains the same sense of foreboding and isolation that Stephen King exploited to horrific effect in his 1977 novel, “The Shining” (which Stanley Kubrick translated to the screen in 1980).
CHARACTER: The cast of Darling is spare – outside of Darling, The Man, and Madame, the only other characters are two police officers (played by John Speredakos and director Larry Fessenden), a concerned neighbor (Al-Nissa Petty), and a young woman (Helen Rogers).
In word and deed, Lauren Ashley Carter’s performance as Darling invokes justified comparison to Catherine Deneuve’s iconic rendering of Carol in Repulsion – from the awkward, wide-eyed forays into the outside world, to putting on a facade of sociability when in the company of the opposite sex (or, in Carol’s case, indulging in the shared joy of a co-worker’s good news). There is an unpredictability to her character that, like Keating’s twisty plot, keeps us spellbound. In less transparent ways, she also possesses the traits of Carol antecedents like Angela Bettis’s title character in Lucky McKee’s 2002 film, May. Sean Young’s Madame, conversely, is a model of cold yet confident femininity wrapped in a pricey fur coat – in appearance and demeanor, she would probably consider women like Miss Havisham (from “Great Expectations”) and Cruella De Vil (from 101 Dalmatians) worthy shopping buddies. But perhaps a more recent, genre-fitting comparison would be Mrs. Ulman (played by Mary Woronov) in Ti West’s similarly spare House of the Devil. As employers, both characters are upfront with their expectations for their employees, but leave the “fine print” of the work itself to their ill-fated hires. “The Man,” meanwhile, is a direct reference to 1962’s Carnival of Souls, wherein Herk Harvey’s spectral ghoul plagues a church organist (Candace Hilligoss) early and often, and becomes a symbol of male oppression pushing against an undeterred woman. The identity of The Man in that film is never revealed (and ultimately doesn’t matter); in Darling, Keating does something different with identity to create an aura of unease.
STYLE: Shot in crisp black and white, Darling presents itself as a visual love letter to a bygone era of filmmaking, successfully integrating modern techniques (including split-second flash cuts) and chapter stops to indicate story transitions.
While nobody will mistake the slick sheen of digital photography for a restoration rescue, it nonetheless sets a specific mood from the start: the cityscape is photographed as something alien and unfamiliar, while bizarre sound effects furrow under the din of traffic and other external noise. The way Keating (via cinematographer Mac Fisken) focuses on the minutiae of everyday life – a toilet seat lid; a shower drain; an antique phone – brings back the connection to Repulsion, with its fixation on mysterious family photographs, cracker crumbs, and improperly-placed toothbrushes (among many other things). Instead of opting for the outrageous and over-the-top, Keating successfully mines discomfort from the banal. In terms of sheer look, Darling is a distant relative to Adam Rehmeier’s 2011 odyssey of pain, The Bunny Game. Both films traffic in crisp photography that is lush with detail, and even utilize the same abrupt editing to show the peaks and valleys of their protagonists’ sanity (Keating’s film even begins with the disclaimer, “Contains flashing lights and hallucinogenic images”). And what of Nikos Nikolaidis’s 1990 film, Singapore Sling, wherein an injured detective with amnesia finds himself at the isolated estate of a mother-and-daughter team who engage him in a twisted, psychosexual game? That film and Darling carry a compelling sense of mystery which is amplified by their Noirish looks. As for the chapter stops, which echo the works of Lars von Trier (Antichrist; Nymphomaniac) and Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained; The Hateful Eight), one would think it unnecessary in a film that runs under 80 minutes, but Keating uses this device in an impish manner that underlines the ambiguity of his plot – the titles are about as unreliable in their perception as Darling herself, which makes them doubly delicious.
MISCELLANEOUS BITS (SPOILER ALERT!):
After Madame leaves Darling alone in the townhouse, Keating follows her to a living room, where she takes in her surroundings; framed on the wall is an arc of butterflies, which is a neat visual nod to The Silence of the Lambs (1991). When Darling commits murder and subsequently dismembers the corpse in the bathroom, a hacksaw – a la James Wan’s Saw (2004) – is used to carry out the deed. To that end, the strobe-lit imagery of said corpse rising from its porcelain grave is a direct homage to Heri-Georges Clouzot’s 1959 masterpiece, Diabolique. And as blood flows down the bathtub drain, I couldn’t help but recall Hitchcock’s method of tricking the audience in Psycho (1960): Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup.