Dark Highlands (Movie Review)

The Scottish Highlands can be both beautiful and foreboding. During the day, one can see great peaks, open fields, rushing streams, and those cows with the emo fringes, but when night falls, all that fades into a pitch-black shade. If any hapless tourist does not make it back to the nearest town, village or anywhere with at least a street light or two, they will have to take their chances. Granted, it is not exactly the Amazon or the Atacama Desert, but knowing that will not help when one is sinking into a peat bog, stuck up a mountain without shelter or a safe way down, or being stalked by a killer.

Dark Highlands still.

Dark Highlands, written, edited and directed by Scottish Mark Stirton (The Planet 2006One Day Removals 2008), out on DVD and Blu-ray as of Tuesday, December 18, 2018, via Gravitas Ventures. It is about a Japanese artist (Junichi Kajioka: Taking Stock 2015Johnny English Strikes Again 2018) who takes a trip to the Highlands to paint the view. He soon finds himself the target of a sadistic killer (Steve Campbell: Scar Tissue 2013The Healer 2015) hunting him down. With no one to help him, the artist has no choice but to find a way to survive and escape.

Though the film features an opening narration from Brian Cox (Manhunter 1986X-Men 2 2003), it has a relatively small cast and crew. Barry Thackrey (The Dark Within 2018) worked on the film’s aerial cinematography, but also appears in it as a jogger. Michael G. Clark has worked on Stirton’s previous films as an actor, producer and cinematographer, including this one. Kajioka is also billed as an executive producer. So, it could be safe to say no one was sitting around for too long between takes. It certainly shows in the cinematography, as it opens with some very nice sweeping shots of the Cairngorms. The colours seem a little desaturated, but the scenery looks very nice regardless.

Stirton and Clark even worked in some nice camera transitions, like fading from a car’s-eye view of the road in the city to the forest to show the journey. These visual cues and cuts help as there is not a lot of spoken dialogue on offer. Aside from a few lines and utterances, the longest bit of chatter in the first 30-minutes comes from a radio broadcast. Instead, the characters are built up by their actions rather than their speech. Still, the audience gets the gist behind how scary and crazy the killer is without a single line of spoken exposition. The same goes for Kajioka’s artist and why he wants to paint the Highlands, albeit through a technicality (it is written on a tablet, so it is not said out loud).

As such, Dark Highlands is not a film one can put on as background noise while doing other things. If the audience wants to follow along, they will have to keep their eyes on the screen. All the action is in the moving picture, with Jon Brooks’ music helping illustrate the mood behind each scene and cut. It is almost pure cinema with the visuals alone dictating the story, though it is not quite the smoothest example.

Dark Highlands still.

There are some nice bits of editing wizardry, alongside the sweeping views, first person shots, etc. However, the camerawork can come off as being quite stiff – one scene, one or two shots, then done. Of course, this could be a sign of the film hitting its budget and saving the fancier fripperies for the big scenes than the little ones, but it does make the film feel a little dull and empty, especially so in the first act.

Or should that be ‘Iteration One’? The film calls its acts ‘Iterations,’ complete with title cards and subtitles (‘Iteration Two’ is called ‘Gatekeeper,’ after the killer). The film could have done without them, though it makes it easier for the audience to tell their friends where the film starts to pick up. The killer’s Deadliest Game starts at ‘Iteration Two’ onwards, when the tension amps up and the artist is put on the run.

A lot of it involves Kajioka hiking about the mountains and plains. However, the film manages to keep it interesting either by having the killer mark his presence- be it via a gunshot or through his ‘presents’ – or occasionally showing Kajioka pausing for thought. A lot of the acting is left down to physical gestures and expressions, yet Kajioka does a fair job in gradually getting more desperate as his character moves about. Campbell spends most of the film covered up, though makes for an intimidating-enough figure. He is basically Jason Voorhees with a sniper rifle, only he takes more satisfaction in making his prey run than going straight for the kill.

Dark Highlands still.

That also means there is some cheesiness involved: the Jason-esque killer, combined with the stiff camerawork, has the action scenes coming off more like an 80’s Slasher. The schlockier scenes can be entertaining, though they stick out compared to the ones with more gravitas. For some, this could mean that the film is not disappearing into pretension, trying to be fancier than it is, though it can feel uneven as it balances film school with video nasty. That said, the kills do mean it gets to show off some of its nice visual effects, while the blood splatter and squibs are simple but effective. Though, they are weaker in other parts, notably the film’s twist in ‘Iteration Three,’ where it reaches maximum schlock.

Does this make Dark Highlands worth watching overall? Well, yes. Either despite or because of its goofier scenes, though they do not make for the smoothest viewing experience, it is a rather strong Horror film. The film keeps up a good pace, particularly once ‘Iteration Two’ starts. Plus, the music helps build up the tension and atmosphere, along with the direction and the performances on hand. While the camerawork is shaky at times, it is stable enough for the audience to get the message.

All in all, though the film’s flaws keep it from being completely golden, getting silver is not so bad. As such, Cryptic Rock gives this film 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Gravitas Ventures

Purchase Dark Highlands:
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  • […] “Either despite or because of its goofier scenes, though they do not make for the smoothest viewing experience, it is a rather strong horror film. The film keeps up a good pace, particularly once ‘Iteration Two’ starts. Plus, the music helps build up the tension and atmosphere, along with the direction and the performances on hand.” Cryptic Rock […]

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