Admittedly, I didn’t care much for Mickey Keating’s previous alien attack, POD, but Darling is a completely different beast. A sexy, ravenous beast contained in the eyes of lead actress Lauren Ashley Carter, who cuts through the screen like a warm knife through silky butter. She’s the reason we’re left mesmerized by a black-and-white housesitting tale with a sinister flicker, because while Keating’s technical prowess may be seizure-inducing at times, Carter’s glare just won’t let us look away. It’s like a voodoo curse or something – I could gaze into those crazy eyes all day, knowing the dark dementia that exists behind Carter’s mismatching facade. Personal intensity makes Darling more than a high-grade film school assignment, while Keating boasts a want to turn his influences into gripping tension, but this is Carter’s day to shine, and shine brightly she does.
As mentioned, Carter plays an apartment caretaker who begins to experience a maddening psychosis, as the abode’s secretive past infiltrates the character’s mind. Only called “Darling,” based on how the wealthy apartment owner refers to her, Carter’s character hears stories about how previous sitters didn’t survive their stay in the same building, until she discovers a room that can’t be opened. Thoughts begin to brew in Darling’s mind, about what could possibly be hidden behind the scratch-covered door. Could it be the cause of her constant paranoia, or even worse, the reason why previous house sitters found their fate sealed by the apartment?
Darling is divided into chapters – “Her,” “Invocation,” “Thrills!!,” “Demon,” “Inferno,” and “The Caretaker” (respectively). Each one defines a section of Keating’s ever-changing story, with each font foreshadowing what we might be able to expect. For example, “Demon” is written in red, so of course blood is shed during the following scenes. “Her,” on the other hand, is a more sophisticated script font, which is all about Darling’s deceiving introduction. It seems so simple, but these are the details that aid in Keating’s ability to present something mundane with a little more cinematic flair, and a little more technical panache.
Then again, Darling is a bit cut-happy, relying on an onslaught of foreshadowing looks into Carter’s future while she slowly embraces insanity. Entire chapters are built on silent glares and curious lurking, and even when Darling goes to cry out in fear at times, her voice is replaced by creaking string instruments that cue a haunting soundtrack. It’s all very cutesy, and reflects on old-school influences that made an obvious impact on Keating’s studies, but the Victorian takeover feels like a re-appropriation of lessons learned at times, instead of a stylistic repurposing with unique determination. It’s hard to call Darling an homage when so many scenes seem ripped from the past, but Keating’s ability to keep tension heightened is worthy enough for applause, and the film’s sub-eighty-minute runtime surely aids in moving the process along.
Save for Brian Morvant’s turn as a man named Henry, Lauren Ashley Carter is asked to carry Darling – a feat she passionately accomplishes. Keating plays coy by never revealing if Darling’s nasty side is brought upon by the haunted house or her own demented mind, but in any case, Carter keeps us in the moment, intrigued by her actions. Tension is built as Carter stares directly at us, while she slowly lets an unnerving smile creep on her face as intercut visions tease her future madness. It’s the most indie horror move imaginable, but dammit if chills didn’t shoot up my spine while glaring right back at her enlarged face on the theater screen. Carter is asked to win audiences over by walking back and forth in a stuffy apartment hallway, yet somehow, despite her mousy demeanor, the actress appears larger-than-life as the titular Darling – a character who lingers far after the credits roll.
Some might argue that Keating’s style here is a bit too textbook, but if creeps and skin-crawls are achieved, who really cares? Plenty of filmmakers have attempted the same arc as Darling, and have failed miserably. Keating’s delivery is tight, compact, and flies through each chapter, never leaving Carter out to dry while she walks around the apartment in almost utter silence. Psychological horror fans should be especially interested here – fans of more think-y, open-ended tales of city-scape horror – while adrenaline junkies might want to look elsewhere. There’s a certain type of audience who should seek out Darling, and there’s no doubt that those high-society sociopaths will enjoy a young girl’s spiral downward into housebound lunacy.
Lauren Ashley Carter's slowly burning fuse leads to an absolute dynamite portrayal of maddening psychosis, turning minimal dialogue into unsettling glares that speak much louder than words can.