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Categories: Movie Reviews

Matthew Wilson saw British folk-horror The Dark Mile at Edinburgh International Film Festival and was reminded of some genre classics.

At the time of writing I’ve sat on The Dark Mile for just over a day trying to work out my thoughts. Not that I didn’t like it, but because it’s an experience that I guarantee will annoy a lot of people and trying to recommend it to people is going to prove difficult due to the film’s own encouragement that the less you know the better.

London couple Claire (Deirdre Mullins) and Louise (Rebecca Calder) take a trip to the highlands of Scotland to take their mind off Louise suffering a miscarriage six months earlier, to Claire’s horror she discovers they’ll be manning their own boat but she goes through with it for Louise, even at the cost of her beloved Wi-Fi. Despite some of the strange locals, the women find solace and appear to make amends only for several spanners to get thrown into the mix, be it Claire’s text message from Miles, a man she had an affair with, or a mysterious black canal boat that appears to be following them and might hold the reason to why Louise is having strange, prophetic visions of pagan rituals.

That’s as barebones as I can go without touching the finer details, it’s a very slow-burn with a much richer back-story going on that you need to be paying attention to. It’s why I think people won’t like the film because it takes a very old-school approach to story-telling, all the pieces there to get an idea of what’s happening, themes of fertility, pagan rituals and sacrifice all play a part, but there’s never a clear answer as to why and by the end the answers lead to more questions. It’s a film that invites discussions about how everything fits together and some people are not going to like that but others should appreciate the unnerving factor that comes from not knowing anything.

While the characters of the locals were small they added to the mystery of the film, older couple Mary (Sheila Hancock) and her silent, fiddle-playing husband (Charles Menzies) popped up occasionally with Mary’s kind, grandmotherly nature and making it difficult to tell if she was genuine or hiding something, likewise boatman Donny (Finlay MacMillan) appeared quite friendly but his short temper would flare up sharply. The strangest group of all was the family on the Black Canal Boat, the largely unseen mother and father both had that ‘Hills Have Eyes’ look about them, son Kevin (Paul Brannigan) was too angry and too silent for his own good and pregnant daughter Poakie (Harmony Rose Bremner) was a different race to the rest of the family and too frightened to ever speak up for herself.

The two lead actresses were great, both as their own people and as a couple, Claire was the livelier of the two, a fast-talking Londoner with little time for the quaintness of the Highlands. While she was a little grating about her need for Wi-Fi and her ongoing text affair with Miles you did see that she cared for Louise, to me it felt like Claire was the type to act first without thinking which is why she’s so brazen about her sexuality. It’s a performance that will have you questioning what to think, is Claire a selfish egotist that’s holding Louise back or is she a broken partner that went to find solace when Louise couldn’t give it to her. Crucially Mullins manages to make it difficult to hate Claire, she has a lot of flaws but I wanted to have her work past them rather than be punished for them.

Conversely Louise was a much quieter sort, she doesn’t speak until several minutes into the film and even after that she appears to only speak when she has to. There’s a great subtlety to her, you can see the grief but her depression is shown through being closed off and distant, even the film’s reminders of pregnancy through pagan fertility and scattered baby-dolls make her visibly uncomfortable but she never brings attention to herself. As the film goes on, Louise starts having strange visions brought on by unknown forces, these visions add more to the mystery with it being unclear if what Louise is seeing is prophetic, imaginary or a combination of the two.

Director Gary Love takes cues from the likes of Rosemary’s Baby, Deliverance, The VVitch, even Duel which is not a bad thing, for starters setting the film in the Highlands works because depending on the mood, Love is able to switch between picturesque scenery and pitch-black terror, there is more than a few scenes where the entire screen is black aside from a sole light source, it adds to that fear, just wondering what is out there in the darkness. There’s a real skill in being able to convey seclusion and desolation within the same location but the cinematography in this film does just that.

While some people are going to be disappointed by the lack of answers, there’s no denying that Love crafts tension from the unknown, whether it’s the Black Boat with the horn so loud it shook the cinema, the cult-like symbolism that pierced the film throughout or even just the question of what’s the cause behind it, be it supernatural, human evil or something else. It’s not a film with huge set-pieces, being closer to The VVitch with a growing sense of dread and unease slowly creeping over the film, it’s not a technique for everyone but the rarity of such horror makes it a chilling experience nonetheless.

Like I said, I can see people having problems with The Dark Mile, its persistence not to reveal anything about what’s going on is going to rub people the wrong way and leave them confused and angry. But at the same time, it’s that very persistence that sets this movie apart, it’s a spiritual horror disguised as a psychological horror disguised as a chase movie and it works all three layers wonderfully across the whole film.

Matthew Wilson

Operating out of Livingston, Scotland, Matthew Wilson has been self-publishing reviews since 2012 - amassing over 1000 and climbing on his personal account at MovieFanCentral- and has produced a number of short films for his Graded Unit at Edinburgh College. Matthew hopes to start writing and directing his own productions one day, having written several unpublished scripts for film and television.

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Posted on Aug 9, 2017

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