It’s impossible to imagination anyone having a conversation about modern horror masters without mentioning the name Mickey Keating. Having already established a knack for sustained terror and unlikely twists with his work on Pod, Keating has once again proven himself to be among the best storytellers of his generation with the exquisite and haunting Lauren Ashley Carter lead feature, Darling. It’s a film that would make Hitchcock proud, and it further proves Keating’s ability to keep viewers on the edge of their seat.
It all begins with Darling (Carter), a 20-something who is dressed in a way that brings to mind what an adult Wednesday Addams might look like, accepting a job that places her alone in the oldest house in New York City. It’s a position that had proven difficult for the homeowners to fill due to the building’s questionable history, but those stories and rumors are not something Darling has ever heard. She believes the job she’s just taken is an easy one, but she cannot shake the feeling the position sounds just a bit too good to be true. These thoughts turn to paranoia as Darling finds herself alone in the aging structure, and soon she begins to question her surroundings, as well as what might lie on the other side of a locked door at the end of the home’s longest hallway.
As time carries on, Darling starts to sense she is not alone in the old house. She sees visions of herself doing things she has never done—nor would ever consider—and her concern is only made worse as the creaks and groans of the house begins to sound more like whispers than things that go bump in the night. This is when the real fun begins, as Keating ramps up the tension and mystery with unpredictable flashes of violence that seem to startle Darling as much as it’s meant to (and does) scare the viewer. You can sense that Darling feels herself becoming unhinged, but try as she might she cannot resist the urge to further understand whatever it is that has come over her. She wants to know the truth behind the strange activity she has begun to notice, and that curiosity ultimately leads her down a path from which she may never be able to return.
Carter, certainly no stranger to the world of horror (see Jug Face and Keating’s own Pod as evidence), is the heart and soul of Darling. Looking like a modern Audrey Hepburn, she carries each and every scene of the film, often appearing entirely on her own. The responsibility of making us not only feel for the characters, but care about the universe of Darling in general, is on her from the film’s opening moments, but you never get the sense that feels like too much of a challenge for Carter. Her ability to make you feel a wide range of emotions in the span of a single sequence is virtually unmatched in horror today, and it’s not hard to imagine a performance like the one seen in this film being the turn that catapults her into more mainstream fare.
Keating’s direction and style deserve starring credit as well. The black-and-white look of the film gives Darling something of a timeless aesthetic that allows its character and story to feel as if they could exist and happen at any point in history. The only technology shown is a landline and the only clothing is semi-formal attire that never feels tethered to any one period in pop culture. Darling could just as easily work beside you on Monday or be a friend from your grandmother’s youth. This detachment from the now demands the viewer abandon any expectations of what modern horror should be or look like, and instead demands they open their minds to an entirely new world of possibilities.
It’s rare that a film running less than 80 minutes in length feels like a strong contender for the best genre title of the year, but Darling is an exception that horror fans won’t be able to stop talking about. Perhaps even more profound is that this film cements its star and director as being one of the best creative teams working in film today. Martin Scorsese has Robert DeNiro, Jeff Nichols has Michael Shannon, David O. Russell has Jennifer Lawrence and Mickey Keating has Lauren Ashley Carter. I would watch anything these two create, and starting now I will compare everything that comes from this point forward to the near-perfect Darling. In a time when scares in film are more derivative than ever, Darling offers proof there are still more original tales of terror to be told.