Between apocalyptic disaster films and cosmic terrors à la Lovecraft, the horror genre has the theoretical end of humanity pretty well covered. But what about its beginning?
In Andrew Cumming’s magnificent directorial debut “Out of Darkness,” the filmmaker reverses at full speed into the unknown with an imaginative and gruesome wilderness thriller tracking a group of nomads living 45,000 years ago. Part prehistoric “Prey,” part agnostic spin on The Book of Genesis, the film was written by Ruth Greenberg, and premiered under the more sci-fi sounding title “The Origin” at the BFI Film Festival in 2022. The moniker change is just the latest in a line of nuanced creative decisions that makes this ferocious 87-minute monster movie a testament to meticulous storytelling: a scrupulous feat made even more effective by the film’s use of Stone Age brutality and stark narrative simplicity.
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Shot in the Scottish Highlands, this existential campfire story starts fireside — introducing each character as a walking-talking Joseph Campbell explainer illuminated in flickering amber light. The hero Adem (Chuku Modu) lords over the others as a powerhouse of vindictive beauty; wrapped in fur, he seems somehow cleaner and dirtier than any of his starving counterparts. His “mate,” as she’s called in the film, Ave (Iola Evans) is pregnant. The existing heir to the king, Heron (Luna Mwezi), begs to be told a story; but she is not the boy’s mother and quick to tell him so.
The original language created for “Out of Darkness” offers an audio experience no more intriguing than your typical college course in Klingon. That’s not a criticism; it’s just not particularly lyrical. But the bright white “Tola” subtitles, emblazoned on a suspenseful tapestry already unraveling at the prologue, serve as multifaceted focal points in Cumming’s high-contrast mise en scene. As Adem’s advisor Odal (Arno Luening) entertains the would-be prince with the meta tale of the journey they’re already on, his words label the ashen faces of two remaining survivors. Adem’s younger brother Geirr (Kit Young) sits opposite the mysterious and prickly Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green), her magnetic gaze piercing just above the word “stray.” Beyah’s involuntary place in the pack hangs somewhere between cattle, slave, and concubine.
The six pilgrims moved to escape a famine, traveling by ground and sea to arrive in a supposed promised land that fell short of expectations. Backed into a barren landscape and nearing death in the icy darkness, they’re desperate to find food and shelter — placing every faith in the group’s towering leader. It’s only when the young Heron is suddenly yanked into the night by an unseen predator that Adem sets them astray by going after his son. When the pitch-blackness gives way to a blanket of gray clouds, the doomed hunters give chase and descend into the woods before night inevitably begins again.
“You’ve killed us,” one finally says, again in those bright white letters.
An inky oasis that demands to be seen on a big screen, “Out of Darkness” might not be the most striking title. Still, Cumming’s holistically impressive first feature should never have been called “The Origin,” a descriptor that recalls an overly slick Prime Video TV movie more than the gritty triumph delivered here. The cinematography is stunning, vaguely reminiscent of “The Seventh Seal” (although that was shot in Sweden), and the allegorical underpinnings to this hero’s journey through horror are no doubt mined from Plato’s cave and its centuries-old representation of enlightenment.
With as many real-life people who could understand the movie without subtitles as there are actors in the cast, “Out of Darkness” is a movie that’s meant to be read. There’s an invisible but taut connective tissue binding the subtitled dialogue to the unknown performers’ faces, and that gravitational pull forces the audience to appreciate some extraordinarily subtle acting work — particularly from Oakley-Green in what ought to be a star-making role like Amber Midthunder’s “Predator” prequel was for her — while simultaneously luring our attention in closer and closer to go for the scare.
So, what’s the monster? The visual answer to that question will no doubt divide viewers; anyone who remembers “The Ritual” discourse knows what or who you imagine the killer to be rarely lives up in reality. But as a scathing metaphor for humanity’s original sin, “Out of Darkness” is a revelatory feast of cranial gore and heady philosophy — one that’s not only worthy of a trek to the movie theaters mid Oscars season, but that has Cumming snagging an early lead in the race for best horror debut of 2024.
A Bleecker Street and Signature Entertainment release, “Out of the Darkness” is in theaters February 9.
UPDATE [February 13, 4:55pm PT]: A previous version of this review credited Cumming as a screenwriter on the film, which is incorrect. Greenberg penned “Out of Darkness” solo from a story by Cumming and Oliver Kassman.
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