Studio: Smokebomb Entertainment
Director: Audrey Cummings
Writer: RJ Lackie
Producer: Jay Bennett
Stars: Bea Santos, Olunike Adeliyi, Ari Millen, Christine Horne, Dmitry Chepovetsky, Jon McLaren, Zoe Belkin, Paul Amos
A young woman finds herself transported to a labyrinthine world ruled by devotees to a despot who worships a mysterious deity.
The people of Darken have lived in their maze-like realm of endlessly connected rooms for so long, they no longer remember what the outside world was like. Some doubt there even is one anymore. Lost souls sought sanctuary under the protection of their goddess Mother Darken, who built this dimly-lit haven and healed their wounds with her life-giving black blood.
Then Mother Darken disappeared and their refuge started dying. Priestess Clarity presides in her place, assuring those who remain loyal that Mother has not abandoned them. Anyone who loses faith can join the exiles, scavenging dirty corners of Darken that resemble an indoor Mad Max wasteland. Or worse, Clarity will banish traitors through an interdimensional doorway with a promise that whatever waits on the other side poses a greater danger than anything inside Darken.
The latter fate befalls Karisse, who gets a knife in her stomach and a push into the portal when Clarity’s lickspittle Martin outs her as a nonbeliever. Although she lies dying, Karisse finds her longtime suspicions validated when she ends up on Earth. Karisse implores young nurse Eve to find a man named Taro and tell him they can leave Darken after all. Eve’s confusion has little time to comprehend the odd request when Karisse utters an incantation as Eve opens the hospital doors behind her. Inexplicably, Eve is transported to Darken.
Having an outsider in their midst inspires frenzied activity throughout Darken. While Eve struggles to find a way out of the apparent labyrinth, Clarity rallies disciples to eradicate the exile rebellion once and for all. Whatever mysteries hold Darken together, Eve is now at their epicenter, where unraveling the truth will forever change what everyone believes.
Assuming you read the wordy summary above before seeing the movie, you’re now a long length ahead of anyone who goes into “Darken” blind. Most of the movie’s mythology comes in piecemeal crumbs, and nonlinearly to boot. The film isn’t particularly confusing per se, though there is a fair deal of fiction to straighten out while following along, which could be a bar to entry for people who don’t pay attention from the top.
Get past this gate, stay onboard, and “Darken’s” rich atmosphere capably takes the fantasy from there. For brevity’s sake, I normally limit compliments to production design (Ciara Vernon) and cinematography (James Griffith, who surprisingly has no other IMDb credits). Since I don’t know who did what, I’d be remiss if art director Mackenzie Hartridge and set decorator Stefan Harhay weren’t given kudos too.
Being a low-budget production, you may never fully fool yourself into thinking Darken exists anywhere other than a soundstage. Yet these leads and their teams put in a workhorse effort to mask the choking confines of whatever warehouse they were working in as well as can be expected. Only an unappreciative jerk would prevent his/her imagination from meeting them halfway by filling in remaining blanks.
I don’t know what it is about Canadian indie sci-fi. Maybe the perceived commonality is all in my mind. But I always liken its look to Toronto/Vancouver TV shows I watched in the 1990s like “The Outer Limits” revival or “Psi-Factor: Chronicles of the Paranormal.” That’s a compliment if you have the same affinity for that style as I do. “Darken” exudes a Saturday syndication feel, though it suits the smallish scale to a T.
Something else that sold me on seeing the movie was the inclusion of Ari Millen from “Orphan Black,” another series I adore. It saddens me to say, Millen is shockingly the weakest link in the cast.
Although he calms down considerably as the film goes on, Millen seems somewhat contemptuous about having to play an archetypical toady. Perhaps trying to purposefully chew scenery and having his attempt read as flippancy, Millen plays his religious zealot persona with the same brand of overblown caricature strokes that made Jake Gyllenhaal seem out of synch with everyone else in “Okja" (review here). Millen’s performance evens out in the end, but it is definitely the most bizarrely disappointing work I’ve seen from him.
Much like Millen’s character, “Darken” can come together clunkily. There are a lot of people with a lot going on for an 80-minute endeavor. An episodic structure to the scenes suggests “Darken” may even have been conceived as a serial at some point (EDIT: “Darken” apparently intends to launch a digital series). Fitting everything into the frame of a feature film necessitates some clipping, cramming, and shortcutting that doesn’t always go smoothly.
As long as you accept the presentation at face value, “Darken’s” ambitious ideas retain their entertainment weight. It’s a toss up if you’ll want a return ticket to this weird world. But one time through its portal is worth the trip, provided you come at “Darken” with the positive perspective of expecting the indie sci-fi style mentioned earlier. In that case, earnestness on both sides of the lens ensures you’ll remain engaged in the movie’s intriguingly kooky dark fantasy.
NOTE: There is a post-credits scene.
Review Score: 60