For their second low-budget horror collaboration, after the ambitious if flawed alien-invasion movie Pod, director Mickey Keating and actress Lauren Ashley Carter went a little more classical. Darling plays like something that might have screened at the Anthology Film Archives in the heady, occult-tinged early ’70s, an artfully shot black-and-white riff on Repulsion and The Shining (no, The Shining hadn’t been released then, but the comparison stands) told in fragmented chapters whose indelible images include a young woman in a beehive hairdo, spattered with a stranger’s blood.
Set in a Manhattan free of contemporary identifiers like cell phones and TVs, Darling opens with our title character (Carter) receiving instructions from Sean Young, playing the imperious, fur-clad “Madame” of the stately brownstone she will be housesitting. “Madame” informs her employee that the house has a bit of a reputation, especially after the previous caretaker killed herself last winter. She then sashays out the door, surely smelling of gardenias or roses or some other stately floral, leaving “Darling” alone to explore the place—and Carter to carry the film. She does so skillfully, captivating the viewer with her direct, wide-eyed gaze as her moods swing from placid passivity to primal terror to violent psychosis.
Later on, Carter’s Pod co-star Brian Morvant will appear as a man from the neighborhood who becomes the unlucky object of Darling’s fixation, and later still cult filmmaker Larry Fessenden shows up as a cop who stumbles on the aftermath of her breakdown. But for most of the movie, Carter is alone in the house, where she is inexplicably drawn to a locked door down at the end of a long white hallway. This, plus the discovery of a mysterious necklace in the guest bedroom, sends her into fits of what may or may not be possession, her fear expressed with flashing strobe lights and quick cut-ins of disturbing imagery, some of which turns out to be foreshadowing. (The opening title card reads “this film contains flashing lights and hallucinatory images,” and it’s not lying.)
This is all to say that Darling is light on plot and long on style, meaning that horror fans who criticized The Witch as “boring” may have a similar reaction here as well. (It does bring the black-and-white blood and pummeling intensity in a series of scenes about two-thirds of the way through, though, for what that’s worth. Plus, it’s less than 80 minutes long.) But regardless of your preferences in terms of storytelling, it’s hard to deny the artistry of Keating’s cinematography—which really utilizes the full depth and range of black-and-white—or of his sound design, which sees the menacing potential in both a ticking clock and a violent blast of metallic sound.
At the end of the film, it’s unclear whether what we have seen is, or ever was, “real.” This is a ghost story without a ghost, a tale of demonic possession that might also be about a psycho killer. But what it is, clearly, is an announcement: Keating, and his leading lady Carter, are horror masters in the making.