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Rarely do mystery grab bags live up to expectations. Often, they are just lucrative ploys for retailers to offload unwanted stock to gullible consumers.
AMC’s Screen Unseen program unfortunately follows this same logic, where guests can watch new films for $5+tax, according to AMC’s website. This week’s film was “Out of Darkness,” a horror slasher set in 43,000 B.C.
The film follows a Stone Age tribe as they embark on a daunting journey through an unknown land. Tensions mount once they learn a vicious predator stalks in the woods, and the tribe is the only prey around. Key relationships fall apart at a time when they are essential to the tribe’s survival, leaving characters ostracized and fighting alone.
The premise of “Out of Darkness” is fresh and highlights countless questions not normally asked in the horror genre: How did early cavemen communicate? What did they hunt, and how did they forage for food? What were intertribal dynamics like? How does this prehistoric world — much different from our own — lend itself to new forms of intimacy and suspense?
Despite these promises, the film was overshadowed by cheap jump scares, grotesque body horror, and an overdone “monster in the woods” trope. In “Out of Darkness,” characters are dragged away, mutilated, and murdered at regular intervals, coming across as lazy storytelling as opposed to excitement.
For the first half of “Out of Darkness,” the monster exclusively comes in the form of foley sounds, rustling plants, and missing tribe members. Some low-budget films pull off this type of psychological horror to blood-curdling effect. However, psychological horror in this film is used as a tool to cut down production costs rather than milk suspense.
In essence, “Out of Darkness” fails to capture the magic of its A-rated premise. For example, scenes in which the tribe shares important exposition over artificial fire, such as flickering lights on a pitch-black sound stage, make up a very large portion of the film. If the dialogue were more engaging or the characters more endearing, these scenes might serve a purpose other than pushing the story forward. The spirituality and day-to-day life of early humans should have been the story’s main focus, with only brief departures into cerebral horror.
As it is, the film does have one saving grace: its unsettling cinematography. Longshots of the vast wilderness, handheld tracking shots through the densely packed forest, and bird’s eye shots from far above, contribute to an eerie atmosphere similar to Robert Eggers’ “The Witch.” In a memorable sequence, the camera violently and spontaneously shakes to signify a lurking presence in the woods. The audience’s response: raucous laughter. Of course, that’s not what this shot was going for, but it wound up being one of the best in the movie for that very reason. It did something different, interesting, and worth watching.
Despite its creative camerawork, “Out of Darkness” mostly amounted to an unpleasant and frustrating watch. What could have been a fascinating exploration of prehistoric life overemphasized fell short, as an uninteresting gimmick.
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