On the one hand, it’s sort of easy to slag writer/director Mickey Keating’s 2015 indie horror offering Darling as a pretentious, overly-self-conscious, hopelessly derivative knock-off of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion with, sadly, no trace of Catherine Deneuve in sight. In fact, if we get right down to brass tacks here, it’s more than fair to say this film is, at its core, simply an uncredited remake of that earlier — and admittedly superior — work.
On the other hand, though, that’s giving pretty short shrift to what Keating actually has managed to accomplish here, which is to craft a visually stunning, intensely moody, deliriously provocative, and painfully believable tale of a young woman’s descent into madness that, while being far from original, is certainly harrowing and memorable enough in its own right.
Shot — as its predecessor was — entirely in black and white, Darling follows the downward spiral of its titular character (played by Lauren Ashley Carter, who delivers a truly gutsy performance) after she accepts a job house-sitting at a clinically austere New York mansion with something of a foreboding history. Dialogue is often sparse and extreme close-ups are the order of the day as we follow Darling from room to room, each door-opening and even footstep rife with tension and import. On a purely surface level, sure, there’s not much going on — but just beneath that surface, shit, there’s a veritable cauldron of apprehension brewing that threatens to boil over at any moment. The house is obviously haunted as shit from the outset, but the film’s deliberate snail’s pace ensures that each piece of evidence we receive to support that pre-determined conclusion, no matter how small, is weighted with near-otherworldly significance. The spirit of the home’s former devil-worshiping owner (Sean Young in a too-brief but welcome appearance) looms large over much of what’s happening here, but for the most part this is a very solitary character study that adopts a very insular and claustrophobic feel despite the fact that so many of its sets are, indeed, quite vast. Carter has to absolutely kill it in her role because, apart from a few other folks drifting in and out for specific plot purposes (the most notable of which being Brian Morvant as “The Man”) she’s literally it — and as her mental condition deteriorates you feel frightened both of and for her in equal measure. If you’re into spending a lot of time inside somebody’s mind, this is going to be right up your alley — if not, well, bail out quick before you go fucking crazy yourself.
Another bunch that might want to take a pass on this one are those folks who either need answers or who appreciate, at the very least, a nice, tidy ending. Darling offers none of that and counts on you to fill in many of its numerous blank spaces for yourself. As our “heroine” finally cracks she may (or may not) do something that’s so damn diabolical that her mind would snap if it were still actually functioning, but by this point what’s “real” and what’s feverish hallucination can’t truly be discerned and you’re left entirely up to your own devices when it comes to determining what’s actually taking place and what isn’t — or, for that matter, if the distinction between the two even matters anymore.
To me, that’s a sure sign of good psychological horror even if, again, it’s not particularly original psychological horror. And that’s probably why this film — which is now available on Netflix (which is how I caught it) as well as on Blu-ray and DVD — is garnering a bit of “buzz” around it. Certainly all of the core concepts, conceits, and visual trappings of Darling are borrowed and/or swiped, but you just don’t see many films of this type anymore, and for that reason it feels like a breath of fresh air in the contemporary horror landscape. Even if, strictly speaking, it isn’t.
Obviously, though, Keating’s film is going to alienate at least as many folks as it enraptures, for reasons already stated. I’ll assure you of this much, however, without the slightest little bit of hesitation — if this sounds like your cup of tea, then it absolutely is, and you’re going to love every taut, terrifying second of this stylish throwback. Somewhere in Poland, I like to think, Roman Polanski is smiling — deviously, of course, but appreciatively.