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Mag Fest review: The Darkness Within

February 28, 2010

There are plenty of minor things I could be critical about with “The Darkness Within,” but the plain truth is despite its low-budget flaws (and I mean, the thing was made for $3,000 on a mini-DV cam!) , it’s still a captivating psychological drama that had me completely hooked. With a film such as this, it just goes to show, it is not about how much money or what camera or crew you have, but how effective you are at telling a story.

Chad (Jimmy Scanlon) and Ashley (Michelle Romano) are starting their new lives together, recently engaged and moving into a new apartment that Ashley likes to call a coffin – a small basement apartment with too many spiders. We know that Ashley is a bartender but we are not quite sure what Chad does besides looking for a job and playing with lots of video equipment. However, he also likes to spend a lot of time over at his landlord’s apartment, getting high and drunk and watching she and her boyfriend play video games. He’s a real catch.

In his free time, he also shares with his new friends his concerns over the peeping tom in the neighborhood. In trying to not share this with Ashley, Chad appears to begin losing his mind as the mystery unravels as to whether someone is daily breaking into his house and opening the blinds and watching him at night, or not. His neighbor, Mr. Reed and the possible peeping tom, pops up in unsuspecting moments, watching quietly.

Portalla does this in a quiet yet effective manner. The first time we see him looking in the window is a long drawn out scene where Chad is peeing. There is no score that gives away that Reed is looking in. There is no camera zoom in on his face. Instead, he just is there, quietly watching.  We notice out of the corner of our eye and it is the more shocking for it. Yet Mr. Reed’s denials during the day make Chad question what is real. Maybe it is not him that we see. Maybe it is someone else.

Writer/Director Dom Portalla effectively uses some red herrings that even this obsessive psychological horror fan didn’t pick up on until the big reveal at the end. It takes a craftsman to truly carry the viewer’s suspense all the way thru until you want to let them in on the truth. Although the twist ending has been overused over the past few years to the point of most audiences realizing what’s coming long before the filmmaker can get you there (yes you “Shutter Island”), “The Darkness Within” still manages to surprise.

Portalla said that when he was deciding on creating a horror film, he wanted the feeling of claustrophobia and a single location. Using his own apartment and some guerilla style filmmaking with a very small cast and crew, he manages just that – an evocative tale that takes you down an unexpected road (which I would love to examine fully but hate to kill the ending for you, so instead, just see it).

The film recently played at the Magnolia Film Festival in Starkville. Check the Facebook fan page for updates on where to see it next.

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