First a little fear…
I imagine that it is really hard to make an even slightly unique vampire movie nowadays. We have had vampire courtesans in their lace and finery. We have had vampires with punk rock mohawks and leather pants. We have had vampires who are little more than pack hunting monsters, and we have had vampires who come from outer space. Hell, someone even tried to pass off that nonsense about a rather posh sparkling lad and his mentally vacant girlfriend as a “vampire” flick. So what do you do if you want to make a successfully interesting vampire movie now?
If you are writer/director Conor McMahon putting together the film From the Dark, you simply go back to the beginning. You simply strip away all the pretense that has developed around the mythos; remove all the tropes, cliches and so transparently desperate attempts to make your vampires unique and special. Put simply, you make your vampires…vampires again. What is left is a feral creature that craves blood, dies from a stake through it’s heart and has a particular disgust for light. Sounds a lot like a vampire to me! But if you are Conor McMahon you go the one extra step…something I haven’t seen and enjoyed so much since 1987’s Near Dark; you never utter the word “vampire” in your film, leaving the creature to speak for itself.
There is not a lot to divulge when discussing the plot to From the Dark. An Irish peat farmer is cutting bricks from his bog when he discovers a hollow inside a buried wooden box. Inside the hollow is what appears to be a skeletal hand; and something else…a wooden dowel of some sort. As we scream “Don’t do it!” the man pulls the stake from out of the box and examines it curiously. He returns to his farmhouse unmolested, but when the sun goes down something awakens.
A young couple embarks on a holiday getaway to the country only to find their vehicle stuck in the mud on a desolate roadway. They look for help in the only place they can find while wandering in the darkness…a farmhouse. There is only one occupant; a farmer who has recently suffered a wound to his neck. He is behaving erratically and recoils in shock at the smallest source of light.
You have now met all four of the characters within this film; they are all that will be needed to play out the drama in front of us. In fact, what follows is literally a single scene, a single set piece and a single theme. The young couple must survive the night using any means they can; their only weapon is whatever light source they can find. Something is stalking them ravenously and ceaselessly…something intelligent and cunning.
This creature is not the poised and elegant vampire of Anne Rice. What McMahon brings us is a veritable tribute to Nosferatu in its design and delivery. Gnarled hands with languinous fingers, a heavy raiment wrapped around its clay like flesh. Sometimes standing silhouetted in the darkness, motionless and staring, and other times attacking with a speed and ferocity akin to the monsters in 30 Days of Night. This creature is wonderful! I absolutely love this take on the vampire and honestly it is one of the best directions I have seen the genre take in quite some time.
Also very interesting is the fact that this creature fears not only sunlight, but any and all forms of illumination. A bright lamp, the headlights of a vehicle, the screen of a cell phone and even the head of a struck match all cause the creature discomfort and can be used as defense. It is particularly fun to watch our heroes running from room to room carrying a table lamp with them in an attempt to get it plugged in and casting a radius of safety. While I at first found myself wondering how far this idea could be stretched, I should not have had any doubts. The answer to that question is also the films only downfalls; the idea could be stretched very, very far indeed.
There are really only two Achille’s heels to From the Dark. The first is the fact that this “run-find new light source-have problem-repeat” is the entire plot device for the majority of our 90 minute running time. Over and over again, our characters do something dumb, something without thinking or in the rare instance are actually outsmarted by the creature only to have their safety net of light snuffed out. And there is the second. They do some DUMB stuff to keep the film moving, especially our heroine. It becomes tedious wondering what hair-brained idea she will have next, instead of just staying put. While nearly every review of the film I have come across rallies on these points, I honestly feel that there is enough great filmmaking here to more than make up for these two shortcomings.
The character begin as immediately believable and identifiable; their banter back and forth feels honest and true to anyone who has been in a relationship long enough to “get comfortable”. And to their credit, the couples first instinct when encountering trouble at the farmhouse is what horror audiences everywhere have been screaming at screens for decades…they decide to get outta there! While this doesn’t work out in their favor and they make more than a few horror victim mistakes after, it was a nice addition.
The handling of darkness and shadow is obviously so important for a movie like this. Hazy illumination backlighting the stalking figure of the creature, a flashlight beam forcing our perspective to parts of the screen where we don’t want to look because we KNOW that the creature is the other direction and pitch blackness in which we hear the scraping and clawing of the approaching bloodsucker. At times the non-stop darkness can be a bit frustrating, but I feel that it is so important for the feeling of crushing isolation. McMahon also proves that he is a skilled enough director to not have to show us the damn vampire every time we are supposed to be afraid of it. A standout scene finds our characters showered with roof tiles and debris…evidence enough that the thing has found its way onto the farmhouse.
I fully enjoy the fact that there is one antagonist, a single vampire, to terrorize us. There is no pack of leather-clad, sword wielding warriors, no tribe of angry, self-righteous human hunters and no ballroom full of puffed-shirts. There is just one growling, hissing, clawing beast. Which is apparently all that it takes to have our characters panicked, crying, injured and cowering in corners by a third of the way in. There is not a large opportunity for the blood and gore seeing as how we only have 4 actors in the whole film, but there is a scene where a face gets pounded repeatedly into a sink that had me rapt with the sound of cracking bone and the skittering of teeth swirling around the porcelain.
All things considered, it would be impossible to say that From the Dark is a perfect horror film; there is simply too much repetition and reliance on the characters doing stupid things to keep the story moving. But the refreshing throw-back to the vampires of old, before tuxedos or shiny leather, is more than enough to have satisfied me. The fact that there are so many other great choices made by McMahon makes this one that I highly recommend checking out.
…then a little beer!
Modern Times Black House Oatmeal Stout (5.8% ABV) – San Diego, CA
Modern Times Brewing from San Diego mashed in for the first time a little over 4 years ago now, just after owner Jacob McKean broke the record for most money raised by a brewery on Kickstarter. Enough, in fact, that plans were made for generous donations to charities by related vendors. With his brewing equipment in hand already, a history with Stone Brewing Co. and a plan for success firmly established, people wanted to see McKean’s brand succeed…and succeed it has. Voted Best brewery in San Diego (amongst 100+ competitors!) in 2015 by West Coaster Magazine, Modern Times is now distributed throughout California, into Nevada and just months ago found its way here to Oregon.
This success lends itself in large part to McKean’s philosophy of approachable creativity; much like the ideals of writer/director Conor McMahon. Where From the Dark strips away the bigger is always better conceptions, so does Modern Times as it aims for a sessionable, but packed with personality approach. One such brew is their year-round release Black House Oatmeal Stout. Featuring a blend of Ethiopian and Sumatran coffee roasted by the brewery itself, Black House is an incredibly complex flavored brew hiding behind a 5.8% ABV disguise.
From the pour it is difficult to pay attention to the color, carbonation and head due to the immediate rush of aromas ranging from chocolate to roast coffee to a malty sweetness. Black House pours a rich and deep brown, practically black. A creamy, thick, tan head rises nearly an inch from the surface and holds well into your first few tastes. All the while those original aromas continue to morph and impress. Malt sugars become silky vanilla and bitter coffee becomes mocha and cacao. As it warms, a citrus brightness rises. The carbonation is subdued but present, giving enough life to the mouthfeel without distracting from the rich smoothness.
Light to medium bodied but lush, your palette is telling your brain to expect a much higher ABV. It is a pleasant surprise (not to the brewing team who aims for such things!) to find that you can have another of these without fear of going “over the edge”. Flavors are led in the charge by the coffee…roasted, yes, but also floral (the Ethiopian beans?) and not a bit of astringency. Following just behind is a chocolate and nutty creaminess and just a hint of light vanilla. A touch of malt sweetness is apparent from the crazy inclusive grain bill and there are hints of biscuit in the finish. Chocolate and coffee linger and demand another quaff.
Black House Oatmeal Stout is a testament to not only restraint, but to balance. The sweetness of the malts offset the bitters of chocolate and coffee, the creaminess of the oats disguise the slightly thin mouthfeel, and the big and bold aromas stand against the medley of subdued and blended flavors. If you absolutely have to have a bigger punch in your stouts, Modern Times does a specialty release called Mega Black House which bourban-barrel ages the coffee beans and kicks up the ABV to a more rowdy 10%. I would rather follow the lessons learned in both the From the Dark film, and the original Black House Oatmeal Stout and keep things about simplistic quality.