Andrew Cumming’s Out of Darkness comes equipped with its own prehistoric language but speaks to a universal fear of things that like beyond the reaches of the light. Setting the suspense, adventure, and sometimes horror-dripped film 45,000 years ago sets some sparse, but engaging parameters. Back then, everything was tailored around survival — hunting, finding shelter, and not being vulnerable to all sorts of predators were the main drivers of the day. Thus, rather than having things rely on a deeper set of circumstances or relationships, Cumming and writer Ruth Greenberg keep things simple and let the somewhat suffocating feelings of uncertainty and the infinite space of darkness grab hold of the characters and never let go. The film begins at a campfire where tensions are already running high because this specific camp is tired from their travels and on the brink of starvation. There’s nothing like taking advantage of this classic setup than telling a story.

The group’s elder statesman and somewhat guide, Odal (Arno Lüning), speaks to a pre-teen kid named Heron (Luna Mwezi) about their current experience. Heron’s steadfast and stubborn father, Adem (Chuku Modu), is searching for a “promised land” where there is plenty of livestock to eat, a safe place to live, and fertile ground to grow crops. Accompanying them on this journey are Adem’s pregnant mate, Ave (Iola Evans), his brother Geirr (Kit Young), and a stray that joined the group along their travels, Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green). The journey has been less than fruitful thus far, resulting in scant food and no end to reprieve in sight. With Odal’s story, you can tell resentment is starting to build. However, Adem stamps out any dissent as the alpha of the group. If he wavers or shows any slither of doubt, all hell could break loose.

But even that resolve proves no match for the vast openness of the landscape the group is trying to forge through, and Cumming utilizes layers of things to stack the odds against them. There’s the terrain itself, and the cinematography style of Ben Fordesman showcases how insignificant humans are compared to oceans, mountain ranges, woods, and fog. It’s almost as if the earth itself is playing tricks on them. Up next is the eerie and sometimes jolting score from Adam Janota Bzowski. While the group ventures to their next stop, the tribal drum patterns, and slight orchestral bursts feel like another character trailing their steps. The third element is the darkness itself. Within Odal’s story, he hints there are demons aplenty within this endless abyss, ready to pick off wanderers and wayward conquests one by one. The first act of Out of Darkness moves relatively problem-free from the outside world. As the film progresses, the nighttime cackles of animals and perhaps other things start to permeate the psyches of people already on edge. The discovery of a butchered beast is enough to startle Geirr, but Adem’s warrior-like attitude decides to conceal its discovery from the rest of the group.

At least in theory, there are strength in numbers. That notion is put to bed as Heron is snatched by something in the dead of night. From there, any practical measures are thrown out the window as the remaining characters (Adem especially) become feral as they search for him. Cumming elects to keep this shadowy antagonist’s identity shrowded up until the last act of the film. Various tensions work to fill in the blanks as this force sets its sight to run through this group, using nature as camouflage. As the numbers begin to dwindle, some of the members start to look in Beyah’s direction. It almost feels too easy to lay blame at her feet, but it is utterly plausible, given she was not originally in the group. Has her presence brought a malevolent force along with it? Out of Darkness has her character undergo the most transformation by far — from somebody looking to hang in the background to someone willing to do whatever it takes to stay alive. But everything comes at a cost, and it’s the main lesson that Out of Darkness conveys.

It’s something to transform the beauty of the Scottish highlands into an evil playground of paranoia, but Cumming does it. It will make you contemplate what a monster is and how the plight of condition could make anyone assume that identity.

Photo Credit: Bleecker Street