Review: The Dark Marks a Lyrical, Moving Horror Debut for First-Time Filmmaker

This one took me completely by surprise, and I primarily watched it because I was starving for a horror movie in a particularly dry season. Marking the directorial debut of writer/director Justin P. Lange, The Dark begins with a gas station attendant warning off a visiting customer, Josef (Karl Markovics), from continuing on his drive to an especially nasty stretch of woods nearby, thought it turns out that the driver is the dangerous force in this equation. Still, when he arrives to an empty house in the spooky woods, he is confronted with something that wants to rip him to shreds. Oddly enough, that’s not even close to being the most interesting element of this uniquely scary story.

The Dark Image courtesy of Dark Sky Films

It turns out that the creature in question is actually a teenage girl named Mina (Nadia Alexander), who we’re fairly certain is both undead and whose face is covered in blood from eating so many of her victims. While sifting through the belongings in the car of this new victim, she discovers a young boy named Alex (Toby Nichols, who some may recognize as young Danny Rand in the Netflix “Iron Fist” series), clearly a kidnapping victim who has suffered long-term abuse at the hands of his captor. He’s been brainwashed by Josef to follow a specific set of rules, but more horrifyingly, it appears that his eyes have been burned shut. As a result, he doesn’t realize that Mina has become something of a feral monster, who can still speak normally. She takes pity on Alex, sensing that they share a certain abusive past, and through the course of their getting to know each other, we get flashbacks to the nightmare that was her life prior to her transformation.

Not exactly a traditional zombie movie or ghost story, The Dark is instead a deeply moving and emotionally gripping tale of a monster defying its own instincts to kill in an effort to help this child who may have it worse than her, or at least has a fighting chance for being saved. Trouble comes to the woods again when teams searching for Josef enter the woods, and Mina finds it impossible to resists her desire to rip a few throats. Despite its more sensitive nature, the movie doesn’t spare the blood and guts. And there’s even a bit of fun myth-building as we learn why Mina was transformed into this monster (it’s not random). Alexander’s unnerving performance is truly special as we see her fight her impulses and try to be the good person she once was, despite her being born into a world where no one looked out for her this way.

The Dark ends up being a lovely, lyrical take on horror movies that borrows the tropes without leaning on them too hard, and the result is a very human drama about what it means to be a survivor. The film also features a genuinely chilling yet still uplifting final shot that continues to haunt and impress me. You’ll probably have to search for this one, but without fail, it's worth seeking out.

The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.