Promising Psychological Horror Effort ‘The Dark Red’ Has Issues

by Nick Spacek on April 30, 2020

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Down]

Director Dan Bush‘s latest film, The Dark Red (out this week on DVD from Dark Sky Films) is the follow-up to his previous film, the supernatural heist picture The Vault. Much like that 2017 movie, this film was also co-written by Bush and Conal Byrne, and attempts to merge horror with another genre – and, much like The Vault, the results are iffy.

“A young woman is committed to a psychiatric hospital after claiming that her newborn has been abducted by a secret society called the Dark Red – an ancient, underground cult that harvests and controls an incredibly rare blood type that gives one the power to hear and guide another person’s thoughts. The woman, Sybil, claims she is special, that she carries a pure and powerful strain of the blood like nothing seen before, and that the society sees her and her child as central to its next evolution – or perhaps its greatest threat, should she turn against them. Is the Dark Red entirely a figment of Sybil’s imagination – a complex coping mechanism to overcome a terrible personal tragedy – or is there some truth behind her story?”

The strengths and slip-ups of both The Dark Red and The Vault are similar: substantial premises with intriguing first acts, middling seconds, and utterly off-the-rails climaxes. It seems as though Bush and Byrne – the latter of whom also stars as David, the boyfriend of April Billingsley‘s Sybil – know how to come up with a fantastic elevator pitch, but fleshing it out spirals into “Hey, what if we …?” territory as the pair search for an ending.

The concept of “A woman is convinced her baby was ripped from her womb and taken away by a sinister cult – but no one believes her bizarre story” is a fantastic premise. As I have stated many, many times before, I love a film where you’re never quite certain whether there’s something horrific happening in the shadows of our world, or whether the main character has just gone off the rails. They Look Like People, I Trapped the Devil, After Midnight: all of these recent films do an excellent job of walking the fine line necessary to create a sense of confusion and possible doom, and even The Dark Red does it at first.

The opening scenes are horrific in a realistic manner, when we see just how Sybil (a name which might be a little too on-the-nose) began her life with a visit from a DHS worker finding her hidden in an RV near the corpse of her mother. It’s an extraordinarily emotional sequence, and does an incredibly effective job of setting up just how hamstrung our protagonist began her life. The film then flashes forward to Sybil in a psych ward, and we begin learning just how she ended up there, courtesy of a series of sessions with her caseworker, Dr. Deluce (Kelsey Scott).

The sessions exist solely to allow Sybil to flash back to a year prior, and tell the story of the death of her adoptive mother, meeting a man, falling in love, getting pregnant, and then losing her child. As to whether or not she simply lost the child or whether it was in fact stolen from her womb by a bunch of cultists interested in harvesting the baby’s blood is up in the air, given that Sybil has been on and off anti-psychotic medication to treat schizophrenia for most of her adult life.

This is all fairly standard psychological horror stuff. It’s after the sessions when things go off the rails into a revenge plot that comes out left field, with a series of montages straight out of Rambo. The film then almost something else entirely, but is rooted just enough in what we’ve seen up to this point to be somewhat believable, although the emphasis is definitely on the “somewhat.” Were it not for the trail of clues the writers scatter throughout the “is she or isn’t she?” aspects of Sybil’s growing up and possible baby theft, The Dark Red‘s final scenes would seem to come from another movie.

In the end, Dan Bush’s The Dark Red is definitely watchable, but almost infuriating in how little it seems to regard its tonal shifts. Mixing genres can be an effective and entertaining exercise. The intensity of psychological drama mixes very well with the visceral thrills of horror, and even horror’s heightened tension can meld into the blood-pumping intensity of action, but the delineation here is too sharp to be effective. Rather than “yes, and,” The Dark Red chooses instead to go for “and then,” switching from one genre to another, choosing to keep the various aspects distinctly and ineffectively separate.

Nick is a self-described “rock star journalist,” which is strange, considering he’s married with two kids and three cats. This is just further proof that you can’t trust anyone online. In addition to his work for Scene-Stealers, Nick can be found bitching about music elsewhere on the Internet at his blog, Rock Star Journalist, and the Pitch’s Wayward Blog.

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