Dark Touch’s pulse is unrelenting, racing from its very first frame as 11-year-old Neve (Missy Keating), fraught and seemingly hurt, scurries from her parent’s manse, whose furniture, cutlery, even electricity would appear to have a life of their own. Her behavior, like the chaos that reigns within the glossy Restoration Hardware catalogue she lives within, is strange to everyone. A day later, things are no less restless and screwy. Neve has a cut on her tongue and the orange juice that oddly waits for her on the kitchen table stings her mouth, as overpowering as whatever, or whomever, must have caused that nasty bruise on her toddler brother’s belly. By the time Mom and Dad have explained away the black and blue to their neighbors, visiting after housing Neve the night before and abruptly exiting as the girl screams from an upstairs window and her parents wave creepily from a nearby one, the film has long subjected, suffocated, and offended us with insinuations and possibly imagined projections of emotional and physical abuse.
Writer-director Marina de Van’s obvious influence is Carrie, another horror story about a meek girl who doesn’t quite inherit the Earth, but lays it to waste in a storm of telekinetic annihilation after enduring a series of metaphorical stonings. Stephen King’s novel, no matter how allegorical it remains, and no matter how deliriously Brian De Palma staged it as theater of the oppressed, derives its terror and poignancy by rooting its wish-fulfillment fantasy, so disturbingly prophetic of our current culture of school violence, in recognizably real expressions of the alienation and rage that naturally arise from systematic abuse. Conversely, and not unlike her previous In My Skin, in which De Van played a woman prone to cutting and eating her own flesh, Dark Touch is beholden to a strange internal logic that gives primacy not to its protagonist’s suffering, but to its maker’s thirst for fun. Never mind that the story perversely lacks for geographical specificity, taking place in a vaguely European, fairy tale-like hamlet where everyone speaks American English, the spectacle of Neve indiscriminately and graphically destroying everyone around her suggests Carrie’s carnival of vengeance passed through a New French Extremity prism.
To be fair, the film casts a phantasmagoric, if digressive, chill in its depiction of the bucolic and mundane interactions, and it’s provocative for rewriting Carrie White as a prepubescent, for having her come to terms with her telekinetic powers way before her first menstrual flow—which is to say, Neve is less Carrie than Charlie McGee from Firestarter. Her name, tellingly, is practically pronounced by everyone as Naïve, and the way a hauntingly convincing Keating recoils from the human touch becomes as poignant an indicator of the depths of Neve’s despair as the vicious and explicit rage this avenging angel bestows on the abusive mother of a sickly brother and sister who haunt the girl’s periphery throughout the early part of the film; one wonders what kind of apocalypse she’ll be capable of orchestrating by the time she has to “plug it up.”
And yet, Dark Touch seems to reside almost completely in a realm of fantasy that isn’t Neve’s own and borders perilously and atonally on camp, as the girl’s perception of the film’s adults as monsters seems corroborated at every turn by their erratic behaviors and the telling photographs they don’t exactly keep under lock and key. What is truth and what is projection isn’t so much challenged throughout as it is muddled, most jarringly during a birthday party in which a group of school girls who once hated and feared Neve suddenly play nice with her, though certainly not with their dolls, which are subjected to a litany of bald-faced physical torments that abused schoolchildren typically articulate to psychologists with crayons and construction paper. That Neve doesn’t even see the offspring of the film’s adult ghouls as children of the damned, but as damned themselves, inheritors of their parents’ awful sins, comes to sadly reflect how De Van reductively and sadly sacrifices psychological credibility at the altar of genre titillation.