A Tale of Two Genre Films

Aden Young in The Unseen and Oluniké Adeliyi in Darken
Canadians make a lot of special effects driven movies, but they’re often for Hollywood producers. Genre films made with Canadian dollar aren’t particularly rare, either, but good ones often are. The works of David Cronenberg, Splice, Enemy, Pontypool, and most recently Les affamés, which must be the contemporary hallmark for great Canadian horror, are standouts. These titles are arguably auteur-driven films rather than genre pieces, and few of the films in between aren’t memorable. But they shouldn’t be the exception to the rule.

It’s therefore a pleasant surprise that this week yields two notably ambitious works of Canadian science fiction. Darken, directed by Audrey Cummings, and The Unseen, directed by Geoff Redknapp, are exciting and promising works by emerging voices. (Cummings previously directed the tense feature Berkshire County while Redknapp makes his feature directorial debut after a few shorts plus a prolific body of make-up work on films like Deadpool.) Both films have their respective successes and shortcomings, but they are high concept adventures that take bold risks.

Darken offers a feature-length follow-up to an 11-part web series of the same name, but one doesn’t need to have seen the predecessor to appreciate the film. Cummings and screenwriter RJ Lackie create a dystopian world with timely resonance as a colony lives in darkness sheltered from the outside world. Eve (Bea Santos, Coconut Hero) stumbles this mysterious place when a murdered exile appears on the streets of Toronto and implores her to walk through the portal between worlds. Once inside this place, known as Darken, Eve encounters a divided group of survivors living under the spell of an unseen demigod called Mother Darken.

Invisible forces similarly fuel the speculative bent of The Unseen as Bob Langmore (Aden Young) tries to repair his relationship with his estranged daughter Eva (Julia Sarah Stone from Weirdos and Wet Bum). He tries to forget his existence while hiding at a small town mill while Eva lives with her mother and stepmother while feeling herself disappear as she ages. Unlike Darken, nearly all of The Unseen takes place in real-world outdoor exteriors and familiar settings.
Christine Horne as Clarity in Darken
Jasper Savage / Shaftesbury Films
The two films have very little in common besides genre trappings, ambitions, needlessly complicated plots, and female leads with names that start with “Ev.” However, Darken and The Unseen feel like two films in conversation about the pros and cons of making ambitious genre films on miniscule (re: Canadian) budgets. The concepts of the films inevitably dictate the game plans. As Eve encounters the other exiles in Darken, Kali (Boost’s Oluniké Adeliyi) and Mercy (Carrie’s Zoë Belkin), as they evade the manipulative fury of Clarity (Hyena Road’s Christine Horne), who has become the self-appointed tyrant in Mother Darken’s absence, the resistance fighters fill her in on the tricky story that led her through the portal. What ensues is a lot of expository dialogue and much “telling” rather than “showing.”

The best genre films don’t necessarily need flashy effects to captivate the mind. They might conjure imagines worlds and take hold of audiences with big ideas. However, Darken always seems as if the characters are talking around something. For example, Eve encounters a map with a clearly marked hotspot called Haven. We know it’s somewhere important since Clarity and her minion Martin (Orphan Black’s Ari Millen) reference it with plans for destruction. Kali fearfully says Haven is a dangerous place that is off limits, yet she never explains why. Too quickly it becomes clear that Haven is just a wing of the setting that the production couldn’t afford.

On the other hand, The Unseen knows it’s a low budget movie and doesn’t try to hide it. The plot might be far more difficult to follow compared to Darken’s lucid story, but nobody’s vomiting out the facts, either. The Unseen is flat-out incomprehensible at moments and goes on far too long whereas Darken benefits from concision. One tells a story better than the other makes one and vice versa.
Julia Sarah Stone in The Unseen
Redknapp puts an intriguing Invisible Man spin on body horror as Bob reveals himself to be disintegrating. Holes appear in his body as if he has an aggressive breakout of flesh eating disease. Stone disappears from a huge chunk of the movie, but when she reappears later, she proves once again why she’s one of Canada’s rising stars. Stone’s performance plays to the heartfelt bond between Eva and her father and the horror of seeing him slip away. Coupled with the compelling story of Bob’s desire to repair his estrangement from Eva, the occasional glimpses of Bob’s eroding body offer a poignant metaphor for a family’s disintegration.

The few special effects shots in The Unseen are remarkable for such a small film and Redknapp’s work on beefier Hollywood productions proves advantageous when the film shocks the audience with peeks at Bob’s dwindling body. The visuals of Darken, on the other hand, are tells of its budgetary constraints. Besides the often spoken of but never seen Haven, the characters roam dark hallways accented by the occasional coloured spotlight. The few special effects shots, concentrated within the doorframe that offers a portal from Darken to other worlds, are respectable, while the first-rate sound design is a spectacular achievement that transports a viewer to an eerie world of uncertainties and hidden dangers.

Cummings also shows a shrewd hand with her actors. Even though most lines in Darken simply fill out the story or further the plot, the actors deliver them with conviction. Horne plays Clarity like a tyrant of Shakespearean dimensions—and the best sci-fi baddies know to go big or go home—while Santos leads a troupe of strong heroines and finds a worthy sidekick in Adeliyi, who has terrific screen presence. Similarly, it’s exciting to see Ottawa actor Jon McLaren (Undercurrent) step up and he gives Darken a compelling moral compass having honed his chops on shoestring flicks in the 613. At the same time, the disparity between the size of Darken’s ambitions and the scale of its production frequently works against the actors. They often look like a bunch of actors in a game of committed cosplay.

Both Darken and The Unseen take audiences to dark corners of Canadian cinema that aren’t usually explored with such spirit or innovation. They’re worth the trips because they show that the talent is out there. See these films so that Cummings and Redknapp can make more movies.

The talent is here and the cornucopia of big budget movies shot in our backyards has given our filmmakers more than enough opportunities to prove themselves. These films just need the full support to realize their ambitions. Coming to theatres just days after Telefilm’s respectable announcement to support 45 low budget new works that will inevitable screen for a week at the Carlton and slip quietly onto airplanes, Darken and The Unseen can’t help but make one wonder if we should stop asking filmmakers to do more with less. Audiences might be better off with 23 films that let our talents give their productions the flesh and blood to match their ideas.

Darken and The Unseen open June 29.