Out of Darkness Is an Exquisite, But Overly Exacting, Survival Thriller

The Stone Age thriller is more history report than survival tale.

Originally Published: 
Bleecker Street
Inverse Reviews

The Stone Age faces no lack of on-screen representation, from 10,000 B.C. to The Flintstones to Year One, but there’s never been a straightforward Stone Age horror flick — until now.

Andrew Cumming’s Out of Darkness crosses uncharted territory: a Paleolithic and human-focused take on Pitch Black meets Predator (or more appropriately, Prey). It’s certainly not a far-fetched concept — everyday existence for Earth’s prehistoric ancestors sounds like a primitive survival thriller. Defend yourself from unknown creatures and Mother Nature’s fury with pointy sticks and heavy rocks! That’s the anxious energy writer Ruth Greenberg brings to a nomadic story in perpetual motion, although no one will describe Out of Darkness as “energetic.”

Out of Darkness is a primitive survival thriller that draws suspense out of mundane moments.

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Safia Oakley-Green stars as Beyah, a “stray” woman who joins a roving community seeking prosperous new territory to settle. Among them is alpha male Adem (Chuku Modu), his pregnant wife Ave (Iola Evans), and elder Odal (Arno Lüning), all unaware of the terrors that lay ahead. Under the cover of enveloping darkness one night, Adem’s young son Heron (Luna Mwezi) is snatched by a stalking beast that continues to attack at random. Beyah and her newfound family are sitting ducks with no shelter, so they must navigate forward, motivated by the hope of locating Adem’s missing child and defeating their violent pursuer.

Out of Darkness is an animalistic chase from start to near finish, but its top speeds aren’t breaking any radar guns. Cumming’s direction savors the slow burn, as characters huddle fireside while something lurks beyond their visible circle. The horror is derived from snapped twigs cutting through dead midnight silences, or the blur of a figure passing by the camera to denote predatory behavior. The suspense is in relishing what’s heard over what’s plainly seen, like when Beyah’s eyes dart around tree trunks and tangled branches that conceal whatever’s on their tail. Cumming exploits the versatility of wilderness lore when adopted as a horror backdrop like a spooky National Geographic special, although there’s a sluggishness to Beyah’s journey despite the run time clocking under 90 minutes.

Safia Oakley-Green’s Beyah offers contemporary audiences the intro point into this ancient horror story.

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Greenberg’s story resembles a shark attack movie like Open Water. Victims have no escape and viewers wait for the monster’s next aggressive lunge, except its intensity seems to have evaporated. Cumming keeps outward threats vague as Beyah discovers the vileness of her companions once faced with adversity (“humanity is the monster,” etcetera etcetera). Isolation breeds unsettling loneliness as everyone keeps wearily trudging forward like they’re on their way to Mount Doom, and yet Out of Darkness struggles to terrify viewers. The cyclical stop-and-go format doesn’t find an invigorated pace. As desperate and panicked characters keep pushing forward on high alert, those sensations of hot pursuit fall flat at the feet of a third-act payoff that stumbles until intended shocks wear thin.

Scotland’s Gairloch region provides a pristine backdrop of foggy mountaintops and rolling coastal hillsides that become a visual buffet for cinematographer Ben Fordesman to devour. His camera twirls upside-down on gloomy treetop landscapes with doomy artistic prowess, easily sold as the most accomplished element of Cumming’s production. Out of Darkness shows technical promise, from Fordesman’s camerawork to Adam Janota Bzowski’s rhythmic dumb-beating score — all pounding rhythms on stretched hides — which makes its lackluster horror execution so frustratingly obvious. Actors adapt to indigenous practices and meticulous details stitched into the period dressings of fur-lined costumes or acknowledged in spoken native languages, but the overall package just draws on too long for comfort.

Cumming’s feature debut shows tremendous promise from a filmmaker who knows how to shoot a capital “M” movie on visual terms. Out of Darkness looks and sounds like its pre-civilization period for days, but fails to register as an edge-of-your-seat riff on “When Animals (Or Demons) Attack.” Kudos for a gnarly makeup effect that grossly splits someone’s jaw in the shape of Yautja mandibles, but otherwise, lower excitement levels leave the thrill of the hunt lost in exquisitely photographed woods. This one’s for the time-capsule aficionados who may squeal with glee over Cumming’s impressive re-creations of cave-dwelling eras, but Out of Darkness is a better history report than a Stone Age survival tale.

Out of Darkness opens in theaters February 9.

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