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THE DARK RED (2018))
Directed by Dan Bush
Written by Dan Bush, Conal Byrne
Starring April Billingsley, Kelsey Scott, Conal Byrne, Rhoda Griffis, John Curran, Jill Jane Clements, Bernard Setaro Clark, Celementine June SengStack, James Boone Sengstack
THE DARK RED tells the tragic story of a woman struggling with her own sanity. It’s a film that makes you question whether or not the story you are being told is an accurate one or just the sad reality concocted by a damaged mind. Dan Bush’s film keeps the answers close to the vest until the last act, giving us many reasons to believe the protagonist and an equal amount to make us doubt her story. In this way, Bush is able to convey the frustration of telling a story you believe to be true and having no one believe them. This is the foundation to which THE DARK RED is built upon and it’s the strongest part of the film.
We find Sybil Warren (April Billingsley) in the opening moments of the film pacing in a mental hospital waiting to meet with her new therapist Dr. Deluce (Kelsey Scott). Through their various meetings the audience gets to know Sybil’s story of being adopted as a child after being found in a trailer with her over-dosed mother. We find out that she was a very rare blood type which makes her special and may even give her abilities outside of the human norm. We also find out about a mysterious organization that will stop at nothing to get to Sybil and her baby, which is now missing. Sybil desperately attempts to convince Dr. Deluce that her story is not the rantings of a schizophrenic, but the truth.
The best parts of THE DARK RED involve the back and forth between patient and doctor. The truth is a dodgy subject, but both parties seem convinced that their version of the story is that truth. If it were set in the real world, we as the audience would have no problem knowing which is real or not, but this being a horror movie, there very well could be a cult after a rare blood type that gives people psychic powers, so it’s the truth of the world of the movie in question here. I like how Bush keeps building the argument from both sides until the very last minute. Both arguments are solid and both could be true.
The biggest problem with THE DARK RED comes in the third act when the answers do begin to happen and clichés start showing up. There’s a leap in time and a training montage that is straight out of an 80’s action film. It is supposed to communicate the acquisition of skills and the development of body, but it just doesn’t land as convincingly when compared to the psychological and intellectual heft of the rest of the film. In fact, the entire last part of the film leaps from psychological thriller to action movie and I don’t think it is as strong as what has come before. Had Bush kept the story in the institution the whole time, I think it would have been a stronger tale.
THE DARK RED is an odd one. It is acted really well. The scenes between Kelsey Scott and April Billingsley are really good. It shouldn’t work because these are scenes that are being told to us (in dialog and flashbacks) rather than shown to us, with us knowing where Sybil will end up. But it does work nevertheless. What is problematic is the way the therapeutic relationship serves the story rather than having it play out the way it usually does in real life. There is never a moment in therapy where the doctor is screaming the truth to the patient and the patient is left in a puddle of tears on the floor. It makes for good cinema, but it just isn’t how therapy is done. Yet in almost every film with a therapeutic relationship there is this quintessential climactic scene. Having been a therapist for close to two decades, its frustrating to see therapy used as shorthand to get from here to there in a story with a therapist hammering reality into to the client. It makes for a good scene, but sorry, it’s just not how therapy works.
That said, I was extremely intrigued by most of THE DARK RED. The acting was solid. The pacing was decent. The tension was built deftly. The film is reminiscent of the psychic horror films of the late seventies/early eighties like SCANNERS, THE FURY, FIRESTARTER, and CARRIE, yet also deals with some of the less talked about plot points that come up in MARTYRS. While flawed, I’m recommending THE DARK RED because two thirds of a good movie is better than most. When it works, THE DARK RED hits hard. And it works a lot, despite some minor setbacks. It’s a good psychological rollercoaster. Not a great action revenge film. But a decent film overall.