“Darling” (2015) and the Female-Led Film

With the release of the Ghostbusters reboot looming (it’s scheduled to open in U.S. theaters on Friday), Hollywood is now trumpeting the “female-led film.” According to some accounts, it’s as if Tinseltown invented the idea. But as recent protests have pointed out, it is still the male-dominated industry it has always been.

While it’s true that a majority of early Hollywood’s screenwriters were female, they were also pushed into the background and then faded out as men returned from two successive World Wars. Female directors have burned bright but have also been rare. Ida Lupino, who started her career as an actress and singer, is a case in point.

The first woman to direct a Hollywood film noir (The Hitch-Hiker, 1953), Lupino also made a huge contribution to mainstream American television as a writer-director and actress. In addition to her work in Westerns, situation comedies, murder mysteries, and gangster stories, she also influenced the horror genre.

Lupino was “the only woman to direct episodes of the original The Twilight Zone series and the only director to have starred in the series as well” [Wikipedia]. But, as film historian Mark Cousins points out in the video version of his book The Story of Film (Pavilion Books, 2011), many film histories do not mention her.

Director Kathryn Bigelow

Director Kathryn Bigelow holding two of six Academy Awards won by THE HURT LOCKER, including her Best Director Oscar – image source: https://wayneley.wordpress.com/tag/kathryn-bigelow/

Although some contemporary female directors have gained prominence in Hollywood, they have only recently started to receive acclaim as a group. An apt example is Kathryn Bigelow, who started her directorial career with the under-appreciated horror Western Near Dark (1987). Twenty-two years and many films later, she became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar, which she received for her work on The Hurt Locker (2009). This achievement entitled her to join a lonely club of non-acting female Oscar winners.

By contrast, women have started to seize prominence recently in the world of independent filmmaking (particularly in the low-budget indie sector) and in the horror genre. Although they still don’t get the credit and publicity that they deserve, women are playing ever larger roles in independent film, both in front of and behind the camera.

This is particularly the case in horror. Just off the top of my head (and a quick glance at my Facebook friend list as well), I can name:

  • the Soska sisters (American Mary, 2012),
  • Jennifer Kent (The Babadook, 2014),
  • Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, 2014),
  • Jill Sixx Gevargizian (Call Girl, 2014; The Stylist, 2016)
  • Jessica Cameron (Truth or Dare, 2013; Mania, 2015),
  • Emilie Flory (Trauma Dolls, 2014; Starfucker, 2016),
  • Patricia Chica (Ceramic Tango, 2013; Serpent’s Lullaby, 2014; A Tricky Treat, 2015),
  • and Eli DeGeer (China White Serpentine, 2003; Dreaming Purple Neon, 2016).

These are but a few of the women in contemporary independent horror.

Lauren Ashley Carter in DARLING

Lauren Ashley Carter in a DARLING theatrical poster – image source: glasseyepix.com

All this brings me to the reason for writing this piece: the recently released indie horror film Darling (2015, dir. Mickey Keating). Inspired by the raves of fellow film reviewers (most recently, the horror critic and podcaster Jonny Numb, who wrote about the film last week on this website), I got around to watching it (finally, on DVD from Netflix) this week.

Like the Ghostbusters reboot, this movie is a collaboration between women and men in which women take major roles both in front of and behind the camera. I haven’t yet seen the new Ghostbusters film, so I can’t comment on it. But I do have an opinion about Darling. As it did other independent reviewers, this movie completely blew me away.

Darling is a combination of amazing acting and masterful writing, production, and post-production. At its core the film is a haunted-house story, but what it does with this trope is a lesson for horror filmmakers, particularly those who churn out mainstream Hollywood horror but also some in the independent world as well.

Lauren Ashley Carter in a still from DARLING

Lauren Ashley Carter in a still from DARLING – image source: http://horrorfreaknews.com/darling-review-2016/2654

Shot in monochrome with excellent effect, Darling is the story of its namesake, Darling (Lauren Ashley Carter, who starred in Jug Face [2013, dir. Chad Crawford Kinkle] and Pod [2015, dir. Mickey Keating]). Darling is a house-sitter who takes a gig as the caretaker of the oldest house in Manhattan. When it’s too late to back out, she learns from the house’s owner, Madame (Sean Young, Blade Runner [1982], dir. Ridley Scott), that the house has a dark history.

Writer-director Keating gives us little back-story about the house, Darling, and Madame. Like Hitchcock, Keating eschews the “boring bits” of everyday life and focuses almost entirely on Darling’s experience in the house. Through hallucinatory flashbacks delivered via fast cutting, the film teases the viewer with horrific and terrifying images. But are they from the past or the future? Are they products of Darling’s mind? Is she going insane? Or is something evil afoot?

To draw another Hitchcock parallel, Darling‘s cinematography (by DP Mac Fisken) concentrates on the geography of the house and nearby locations in its neighborhood. This environment is full of dark and narrow places that provoke claustrophobia and paranoia. Film editor Valerie Krulfeifer capitalizes on these spaces with her at-times non-linear use of the footage. Original music by Giona Ostinelli enhances the mood of the film’s visuals and adds punch to special and visual effects by Brian Spears and Sydney Clara Brafman. The combined effect of this team of female and male filmmakers’ efforts is to create a surrealistic world in which the distinction between reality and fantasy is slowly erased.

As an actor, Carter thrives under these conditions. Her performance is particularly remarkable given that there is little dialogue in the film. Her powerful physical acting portrays with perfection a young woman’s transformation under the influence of forces she does not completely understand (at least at first). When she does deliver lines, she is completely on-point, particularly in her last telephone conversation with Madame (which in itself is worth the price and time investment of viewing this film).

In my opinion, Lauren Ashley Carter is an excellent example of a woman leading a film in Twenty-First Century horror. Besides delivering her outstanding (and, to be blunt, Oscar nomination-worthy) performance, she also served as an executive producer for Darling. In addition to her seventeen acting credits (to date), she has also directed a short and co-written a TV series. The fact that she is making her mark through indie filmmaking says much about the relative opportunities for women in the independent and mainstream worlds.

I’m looking forward to Carter’s future achievements as well as those of other women in horror. I’m also encouraged by the more balanced collaboration between women and men that this film represents. Finally, not to slight the men, I’ve got my eye on Mickey Keating and his collaborators. There are exciting times ahead for fans of independently produced horror movies.