The Lightest Darkness

A private detective.  A train travelling all night to a mysterious destination.  Three strangers encountering each other by chance — or is it chance?  The moment you start watching The Lightest Darkness by Diana Galimzyanova, you know you’re in the world of noir, where everything is black and white but never simple.

Musin (Rashid Aitouganov) is the neurotic private eye, a frequent train traveler these days as he works to clear up the estate of his recently deceased uncle (Alexander Rapoport).   Elina Vyasovtseva (Marina Voytuk) is a concert pianist travelling for her work.  Arina (Irina Gevorgyan) is a screenwriter researching a script for a computer game — which, as she is quick to point out, can be as complex as any novel these days.  And the subject of her game is one that isn’t far from anyone’s mind: The Fruiterer, the odd nickname bestowed on a serial killer who haunts the night trains for victims, having claimed at least six lives.  People are afraid to ride the trains and are staying away — no, wait, actually the trains are booked solid and the conductors (Anfisa Mukhamedzhanova and Ekaterina Dar) are doing a brisk business in grisly souvenirs and sharing all the sordid details, for the right price.

As this story moves forward, another spools backward, as Musin recalls the details of his latest case.  A worried husband (Vladimir Morozov) hired the detective to find his missing wife, Lyubov (Ksenia Zemmel), and what began as just another missing persons case quickly flies out of control as Musin becomes far too personally entangled with the case, and especially with the last person to see Luybov — her highly unconventional therapist, Izolda Ivanoff (Kolya Neukoelln).

The stories are skillfully woven together, each mystery heightening the other as they unfold.  The characters all have secrets and are haunted by their pasts one way or another, pasts that seem to have inevitably brought them together.  There’s a strong sense of inescapable fate about the entire film, a feeling that all of the characters are doing exactly what they must do, whether they truly want to or not.  Like a train taking the viewer inexorably to the next station, there’s no turning back — not that you’ll want to, as you’ll be far too caught up in the mystery.

This is Galimzyanova’s feature-length debut as a director, and she handles it like a pro, turning the two stories into a fascinating web of intrigue that will satisfy any film fan and especially noir fans like me.  The actors never hit a wrong note, the characters and various classic noir elements blending seamlessly with the modern world to create an atmosphere that’s both dreamlike and alarmingly real, a place where unknown dangers might lie behind every corner.  Sometimes there’s good reason to be afraid of the darkness.

Musin checks his look in the mirror.

Shadow

College is a time for expanding horizons, learning about new things in and out of the classroom, and taking the first steps to adulthood and (hopefully) self-sufficiency.  Of course it can also be a time for learning by making horrible mistakes and possibly falling apart under the pressure of grades, the temptation of wild parties, and the sudden lack of any parental supervision.  They may be adults legally speaking, but turning eighteen doesn’t magically give everyone a good dose of common sense, more’s the pity.

Jane (Revell Carpenter) is one of the good kids, there to learn calculus and maybe meet some people, though she’s also shy and a little overwhelmed by colleg life.  She also has the most adorable crush on Allen (Kumasi Hopkins), who luckily happens to be very good at calculus and is also willing to tutor the less skilled like Jane.  Allen is shy, too, and has so far resisted the extreme peer pressure from his friend and roommate Will (Nicholas Goodwin, who also wrote and directed) to ask Jane out.  In fact Will says that if Allen doesn’t go after Jane, he will, despite the existence of Will’s girlfriend Jessica (Samantha Morias).  It sounds very high school, but then, that’s where they all were not so very long ago.  Anyway, Will has talked Allen into co-hosting a party at their place.  Hoping to have at least one other non-party-animal there, Allen talks Jane into coming over.

 

It’s a fateful decision, and none of the relationships among the characters will be the same again.  But perhaps the most striking thing about this short film is how quietly realistic it is.  Some important events unfold in near total silence, heightening the power of the images on-screen, with the plot unfolding as much in the pauses as in the words.  Every look and gesture from the actors rings true, and every scene is important.  It’s unfortunately not an uncommon story and there’s nothing shocking here, but there doesn’t need to be — the cold and unvarnished truth is quite bad enough.

The Unwilling

Will readings might be passe as a rule, but in dramatic terms they’re wonderful plot devices. It’s the perfect excuse to gather together all the friends and relatives of the dearly (or not so dearly) departed in one spot, preferably some sort of large, spooky old house, for everything from revealing deep, dark secrets to experiencing terrifying hauntings. In The Unwilling, the group gathering together will face both those extremes, and far worse, as what should be a legal formality soon turns deadly.

The recently deceased here is Mr. Harris (Lance Henriksen), and his son, David (David Lipper) lives in a pretty good example of a creepy house, it being both isolated and full of odd noises and strange shadows. David isn’t happy to have a horde of long-lost relatives descending on him, as he suffers from OCD and visitors make his anxiety spike. Since he also suffers from agoraphobia and hasn’t set foot outside in years, however, there really aren’t any other options. He’s glad to see his sister Michelle (Dina Meyer), at least, though there is some awkwardness when Michelle discovers that her ex, Rich (Robert Rusler), is also there, along with his new fiancee Cheryl (Bree Williamson). Similarly, most seem glad to see cousin Kelly (Austin Highsmith) again, but are less thrilled by the presence of the black sheep drug addict of the family, Darren (Jake Thomas). Still, it’s only a brief reunion and they should all manage, right?

There’s an immediate hitch, however, as the group waits in vain for the arrival of the lawyer. Equally, there’s no copy of the will around, just a hideous old metal box that belonged to the deceased and which no one can figure out how to open. To make things more interesting it’s also a trapped box and eventually sharp needles start to appear. They aren’t poisoned needles, though they all might have been better off if they were. No, these needles are creepier than that, as they allow the box to sense each person’s weaknesses, from greed to vanity to Darren’s overwhelming need for drugs. And that’s where the party really gets going.

Darren and the mysterious box.
Now that’s one ugly looking box.

 

My first thought was that this would be one of those movies filled with bizarre supernatural rules that the characters somehow miraculously figure out even though there’s no way they should be able to. But it’s both more straightforward and more horrific than that — it’s all about what you want and need, or at least think you need. The box is more than happy to give you those things, since that’s how the box gets what it wants. It doesn’t even matter why you want whatever the box gives you, from passing whim to the most dire necessity, for the most selfish or the most altruistic reasons, and that’s what makes it so insidious.

What makes the film good is primarily the characters and the conflicts among them. Given the terrible father figure involved — Michelle says flat out that it’s a good thing he’s dead — this isn’t going to be the most smoothly functioning family, and it’s that tension that helps anchor the characters and the plot as the horror builds. However strange things get, there are still realistic characters and convincing problems for you to relate to, and that keeps the film focused and solid even when the supernatural aspects are at their weirdest, and they do get pretty weird. But it’s an excellent balance of horror and drama, with David Lipper particularly memorable as he does his best to shield himself from the terror through his rituals. The character might have become nothing but a collection of tics and habits, but instead helps to give a fresh approach to a fairly traditional script. Dramatic though they might be, it’s probably for the best that no one gathers for the reading of the will anymore.

Dark Forest

Kim and Franky kiss. Never do this in a horror movie, kids.

The woods really get a bad reputation in a lot of horror movies. I lived in the woods for the first seventeen years of my life and I never once saw a monster or a homicidal maniac. Even the animals aren’t all that dangerous as long as you leave them alone, though we did have badgers around and sometimes no matter how careful you are they’ll still try to claw your face off. Of course any animal can be dangerous under the right (or wrong) circumstances, which is my best guess at what the underlying message of Dark Forest is meant to be.
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