At the time of writing I’ve sat on The Dark Mile for just over a full day trying to work out my thoughts on the film. Not that I didn’t like it, in fact, it’s probably the best film I’ve seen at this year’s Festival so far. It’s an experience that I guarantee will piss a lot of people off and trying to recommend it is going to prove difficult, due to the film’s own encouragement that “the less you know the better.”
London couple Claire (Deirdre Mullins) and Louise (Rebecca Calder) take a trip to the highlands of Scotland to take their mind off of Louise suffering a miscarriage six months prior. To Claire’s horror, she discovers they’ll be manning their own boat instead of staying in a hotel, but she goes through with it for Louise, even at the cost of her beloved Wi-Fi. Despite some of the locals appearing more than a little strange, the women find solace in the solitude and appear to make amends to their relationships. Claire’s constant text message from Miles, a man she had an affair with during Louise’s recovery, or a mysterious black canal boat that appears to be following the couple and might hold the reason to why Louise is having strange, prophetic visions of pagan rituals.
That’s as bare-bones as I can make the plot without going into the finer details. This is a very slow-burning film with the backbone consisting of the women being chased by the canal boat. There’s a much richer story going on here that you need to pay attention to in order to get the full narrative hit. It’s why I think a lot of people won’t like this film because it takes a very old-school approach to story-telling in horror. All the pieces are there to get a good idea of what’s going, in this case the themes of fertility, pagan rituals and sacrifice, but there’s never a clear answer. It’s a film that invites multiple viewings, discussions about how everything fits together, and the meaning behind it all. People are not going to like that, they’re not going to like the film’s incessant need to not give you a full answer, but others should appreciate the unnerving factor that comes from not knowing what’s the driving force behind this madness.
While the characters of the locals were small they added to the mystery and strangeness of the film, older couple Mary (Sheila Hancock) and her silent, fiddle-playing husband (Charles Menzies) popped up here and there. Mary’s kind, grandmotherly nature and herbal remedies making it difficult to tell if she was genuine or hiding something, likewise boatman Donny (Finlay MacMillan) appeared quite friendly, but his short temper would flare up sharply and suddenly. The strangest group of all was the family on the Black Canal Boat, the largely unseen mother and father both had that ‘Hills Have Eyes’ look about them in the little we see of them. Kevin (Paul Brannigan) was too angry and too silent for his own good while pregnant daughter Poakie (Harmony Rose Bremner). She was a different race to the rest of the family and too frightened to ever speak up for herself, adding to the mystery of what’s really going on.
The two lead actresses were great, both as their own people and as a couple. Claire was the livelier of the two, a fast-talking, no-bullshit-taking Londoner, she had little time for the quaintness of the Highlands or its barmy locals. While she was a little grating about her constant need for Wi-Fi and her ongoing text affair with Miles. However, you did see that she cared for Louise and there was a genuine love between them. To me it felt like Claire was the type to act first without thinking which is why she appears so brazen about her sexuality in the film’s first act. It’s a performance that will have you questioning exactly what you think of her, is Claire a selfish egotist that’s holding Louise back from healing properly or is she a broken partner suffering from the same grief that went to find solace when Louise couldn’t give it to her. Mullins manages to make it difficult to hate Claire, she has a lot of flaws yes, but I found myself more wanting to have her work past them rather than be punished for them.
Conversely Louise was a much quieter and more timid sort, she doesn’t speak until several minutes into the film and even after that she appears to only speak when she has to, never to fill empty space like Claire does. There’s a great subtlety to Louise, you can definitely see the aftermath of the miscarriage still on her face, but her depression is shown through her being closed off and distant. Even the film’s frequent reminders of pregnancy through the themes of pagan fertility and scattered baby dolls make her visibly uncomfortable, but she never brought attention to herself because of it. As the film goes on, Louise starts having strange visions brought on by unknown forces but presumably having something to do with the Pagan rituals that surround her, these visions add more to the mystery with Louise’ grief exacerbating her already fragile mind. It’s unclear if what’s she seeing is prophetic, imaginary or a combination of the two, but towards the final act she becomes all the more frantic trying to make sense of what she’s seeing.
Director Gary Love takes cues from a lot of classic horror films, Rosemary’s Baby, Deliverence, The Witch, even Duel all have their DNA in this film which is not a bad thing because Love is able to mesh them all together very well. For starters having the location be the Highlands was a great idea because depending on the time of day and the mood he’s going for. Love is able to switch between stunning landscapes and picturesque scenery to terrifying darkness and pitch-black terror. There is more than a few scenes where the entire screen is black aside from the sole light source coming from Claire and Louise’s boat, it adds to that fear of the unknown, just wondering what is out there in the darkness watching and waiting for the right moment. There’s a real skill in being able to convey seclusion and desolation within the same location, but the cinematography in this film does just that.
While some people are going to be disappointed by the lack of answers Love gives, there’s no denying that he crafts tension from the unknown, whether it’s the Black Canal Boat with the horn so loud it shook the cinema, the strange, almost cult-like symbolism that pierced the film throughout with the final act. There were a lot more sinister elements into the forefront or even just the question of what exactly is the cause behind it all, be it supernatural, human evil, or something else entirely. This is not a film with huge set-pieces or jump-scares, it is a lot closer to films like The Witch with a growing sense of dread and unease slowly creeping through the course of the film rather than the stop/start method of sudden horror. It’s not a technique for everyone but the rarity of such horror existing today makes it a chilling experience nonetheless.
Like I said, I can see a lot of people having problems with The Dark Mile, its sheer persistence not to reveal anything about what’s really going on is going to rub a lot of people the wrong way. But at the same time, it’s that very persistence that sets this movie as its own creature, it’s a spiritual horror disguised as a psychological horror disguised as a chase movie, and it works all three layers wonderfully across the whole film. If you enjoyed slower horror films like The Witch or The Wicker Man then you’ll find something to like in this disturbing little piece.
I am giving The Dark Mile a 4 out of 5 Hairpieces!