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DARK SOULS, which screened over the weekend at the Spooky Movie Film Festival, falls into an unfortunately overcrowded category in horror movie fests: independent features that were programmed because they contain what horror fans seem to like, regardless of whether those elements add up to an effective film. DARK SOULS is a frustrating slasher/zombie flick from Norway that alternates the typical and the inexplicable from the first frame.
The Spooky Movie program touted DARK SOULS, written and directed by César Ducasse and Mathieu Peteul, as “creepy, scary, and all and all original.” In actuality, it will only creep out those with a low tolerance for terror, scare only those affected by yet another movie where characters vomit black fluid and is only original for combining all of its disparate borrowed elements. It’s as if the festival hoped a film with enough violence, gore and stylistic touches imported from other movies is all that’s needed to satisfy the audience.
After a halfheartedly sadistic opening scene in which a woman is drill-killed while jogging through a forest, DARK SOULS starts to look promising when that woman’s corpse is rolled into an elevator and starts moving. Her gentle-natured father, a music instructor named Morten Ravn (Morten Rudå), chuckles as he informs a police investigator over the phone, “I’m afraid there’s been some mistake. My daughter wasn’t murdered, she’s sitting right here.” There’s an eerie long shot in which the woman in question, Johanna (Johanna Gustavsson), sits motionless with her back to the camera as her father bids her goodnight. The setup is intriguing. Then Johanna’s face is revealed (surprise, we can tell she’s not right because of the dark makeup smeared over her eyelids) and the movie quickly devolves into flash-frames, sound-effect-enhanced jump-scares, smash-cuts to black and a lot of meandering. The plot alternates between Morten caring for his increasingly deteriorating daughter, a dry-humored police investigator following the rising body count and the driller-killer, whose defining personality trait is his orange jumpsuit.
The airy pace and credible low-wattage performances might occasionally remind one of THE VANISHING or AUDITION, but without the depth of those films’ characterizations, the experience is dull. The father becomes the focus of the most interesting albeit depressing story thread, as he takes his rotting daughter for walks in the park and delivers the movie’s one special scene when a former pupil pays a visit. Then an attempted second attack on Johanna segues the film into a lightweight mashup of THE HIDDEN and HIGH TENSION, without the fun of the former or the striking visuals of the latter. Story revelations range from obvious to arbitrary, and the movie finishes with what would be the end of any other film’s first act.
There are a few clever touches along the way, as when a second woman’s skull is invaded by an electric drill and the shot, from her point of view, shakes as we hear the whirring motor as if from within her head. Those moments of wit are isolated, however, amidst sequences that play out without ever seeming to develop. There’s an entire scene late in the film comprised solely of Morten describing the previous scene in detail, and the film’s central mystery is voluntarily explained to the audience by a character who has not been previously introduced and is literally flagged down randomly to deliver the information.
By the routine Romero-derivative finale, the film has generated a few amused grunts and little else. That DARK SOULS won the Best Horror Film prize at the 2010 Manhattan Film Festival suggests that there were few other genre films in the lineup.
With washed-out, artless cinematography, hit-or-miss editing and sound design that seems desperate to remind us that we’re watching a scary movie, DARK SOULS is competently made but never engaging, a handful of nice touches sprinkled through an otherwise boring paint-by-numbers scenario. A film can always overcome low production values with energy, interesting performances or a gripping story, but DARK SOULS is just rote—a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas with nothing strong enough to distinguish itself from the pack. There were plenty of good movies showing at this year’s Spooky Movie Film Festival, but this was one you could afford to miss.
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