Mickey Keating’s Darling often suggests an exploratory art project more than a fully realized horror film. Keating stages an exercise in style, attempting to stretch and contort certain formal tropes to presumably spring new or updated shocks. He’s following the tradition of recent directors, most prominently Ti West, who pare their stories down to the barebones, allowing characters to wander settings as the filmmakers seemingly probe the spaces for new wrinkles in the genre. The leanness—of running time, production design, context, subtext—is intended to achieve a kind of free-associational abstraction of terror that implies that anything’s possible.
Keating certainly gives us something at which to look and listen. Darling is shot in black and white, and the whites are often so hard and pervading that they feel as if they’re on the verge of entirely eclipsing the title character (Lauren Ashley Carter) within the frames—an impression that’s magnified by the woman’s pale visage, which is offset by the intensity of her brown eyes and the shadows surrounding them. The blacks are softer, upstaged by the whites, giving the film a ghostly yet clinical look that resembles a cross between an X-ray and a daguerreotype.
This aesthetic is striking, but feels almost intangibly derivative, most obviously suggesting an austere cover of Polanski’s Repulsion, though the sound design, including the actors’ jokily stylized delivery of the scant dialogue, forcefully brings to mind the short films of David Lynch. Indistinct industrial sounds complement the images, particularly metallic screeches that aurally suggest a mind at war with itself, hurting itself, which is reinforced by the frequent images of Darling wandering a mansion’s constricted halls, stuck in a forlorn and increasingly dangerous temporal loop. Less effective are quick, nearly subliminal cuts, accentuated with strobe lighting, that bluntly telegraph Darling’s mounting hysteria, confirming that Keating’s trying too hard to sell his atmosphere of subjective instability.
As is often the case in the horror genre, it’s the fleeting, spontaneous-feeling, seemingly tossed-off details that most unsettle. A hallway that transfixes Darling, which leads to a doorway that may or may not reveal a room that once housed satanic rituals, doesn’t geometrically make sense, given what we know about the rest of the setting, appearing to shoot off from the rest of the house in an absurdist, expressionist dead end. A few landscape shots of New York City are casually engulfed in spectral white fog. A shower drain is just a little too large, prompting one to wonder what might come out of it.
This sort of tight yet airy, deliberately generic horror film is composed of universal scenarios that provide the foundation for a motion series of Rorschach-like images to stir within the audience far scarier things than what’s actually offered on screen. And this is partially the rub, as this discipline masks a timidity of ambition and invention.