Although Mickey Keating’s latest film, CARNAGE PARK, is what appears to be putting the director on the map, his sophomore effort DARLING contains a considerable amount more of style and vision. Telling the story of the eponymous Darling (Lauren Ashley Carter), an offbeat loner who gets hired as the caretaker of a mysterious New York mansion, things almost immediately prove themselves to be sinister as Madame (Sean Young) details the unfortunate end of the last caretaker. As Darling explore the mansion, she experiences a variety of anxieties and hallucinations that leave us questioning her mental state, her grasp on reality, and just what in the Hell is actually going on.
Credit must be given where credit is due: DARLING does an impeccable job of establishing an atmosphere that’s both claustrophobic and schizophrenic. Warning us at the very beginning that it makes use of flashing lights and hallucinatory images, DARLING capitalizes on this to an extreme, contributing to an assaultive sensory experience that consistently leaves the viewer on edge. Working in a kaleidoscope of whispers and bumps in the night, in addition to occasional bouts of hyperkinetic editing that leave one reeling, DARLING cannot be faulted for its sense of ambition and unease. However, what it can be faulted for is squandering this potential on a neverending string of split-second jump scares that feel amateurish and oddly reminiscent of the similar tactics utilized in INSIDIOUS 2. I suppose that this does leave the viewer on the edge of their seat, but it’s only for the gut level shock of being assaulted with yet another screaming face instead of what could easily have been a slow-burning nerve shredder. Furthermore, all of the scares are so clearly predicated on a soundtrack transition to screeching strings and pounding pianos that, while contributing to the all-out battering of comfort, feel nothing less than boorish.
All that being said, even though it tends to leave a rather unsavory taste in the mouth, Lauren Ashley Carter is such a stellar acting presence that the film is still tacitly enjoyable at its worst. Turning in some of the most tortured, mentally deranged acting of recent memory (a scene with her looking at herself in a mirror as she breaks down is particularly poignant), I am certainly excited to see what she does next in the world of horror, as we could have a real scream queen on her hands. That being said, while her character isn’t necessarily lacking, the writing is never more than functional. I love a good mental breakdown as much as the next guy, but DARLING has the strings fray far too early and far too easily for me to really have a chance to latch on and be emotionally invested in Darling’s well-being. It’s a competent enough springboard for the concise story the film tells, but what’s really a shame is the half-baked subplot involving a possible demonic element that the film sets up, barely develops, and then more-or-less ignores.
The last thing worth commenting on are the complaints that the film apes Polanski to an excessive degree. I can’t disagree with these statements, but the visual cues are so blaringly obvious that critiquing this clear desire for homage is less inventive than Keating’s tribute itself. All in all, DARLING manages to rise above many of its less stylistically founded horror peers, but can’t quite manage to overcome its shortcomings. Personally having been less-than-impressed with CARNAGE PARK, I found DARLING to be a step up in quality, but Keating may still need another film or two to iron out the kinks.
Although possessing an undeniable sense of style and vision, DARLING self-destructs its engaging atmosphere with the regular appearance of juvenile jump scares.