May 14, 2018 Dark Vale (Movie Review)
Let’s just get this out of the way right away: nope, this film has nothing to do with the podcast series Welcome to Night Vale or the Andy O’Halloran book The Dark Vale (Createspace Independent Pub, 2011). Instead, this is actually a British Horror film by Jason M.J. Brown (Dead Girl Walking 2010, City of Decay 2015) that does not waste any time getting started as Actor/Producer Martin Farmilo reads backstory around a campfire. Granted, he sounds like a parent going through a bedtime story for the fourth time in a row, but it is something and it will help those who dare to go in blind when the film gets released to DVD and VOD via Wildeye Releasing on Tuesday, May 22, 2018.
For anyone else, here is how it goes down: a young couple called Tom (Darren Randall in his acting debut) and Leah (Cara Middleton: Vengeance 2016, Robin Hood 2018) decide to have a weekend getaway in the countryside. Unfortunately, to get to their cottage they must go through a place called the Vale. Here, things take a funny turn when they find themselves stalked by the ghost of Lady Lucy (Chloe Clarke: A Date with Ghosts 2015), and they are left with only two choices – discover what Lady Lucy wants or stay in the Vale forever.
If Brown did not have the directors from Penny Pinchers in mind, then he could be following in their footsteps as the film looks cheap as chips. One cannot fault a film for a low-budget sometimes – only what they do with it. Based on estimates, 2017’s Einstein’s God Model had more money than 2018’s Gehenna: Where Death Lives, but the latter ended up looking more professional than the former. Dark Vale clearly had a much lower amount to work with, or Brown is not a technical wizard; the direction, editing and cinematography here is more like an ’80s/’90s no-budget flick with advances in technology keeping it from having that ‘Shot on Shitteo’ look.
Perhaps that look can be part of its charm. If anything, some people might have liked it better if it looked even cheaper; this might have added that grimy look to the visuals. Still, clean visuals are not a problem overall. The dodgy sound design could be an issue though, especially when the mic pick up the wind over the vocals. In one particular scene, Tom’s search for Leah’s inhaler also becomes a battle for Randall to be heard over a strong gust. Furthermore, in a few other instances, the background music cuts out and restarts during scenes.
The visual effects are not exactly high grade either, with some wonky handling with the CG ghosts. That said, the wonkiness does add to the paranormal look sometimes, though only by a touch or two. At the very least, Brown and VFX artist Adam Lima (RIPD 2013, Insurgent 2015) knew when to use them, and did not flood the screen with stuff like 2017’s Mortuary Massacre. Thank goodness for small mercies!
As for the acting, Randall makes his feature length debut here with a shaky but emotional performance, and he has good chemistry with Middleton. However, Middleton is stronger on screen in comparison, putting on a more convincing show as the put-upon girlfriend. Darren Whitfield (The Crew 2008, Superman: Requiem 2011) also puts in a good effort as one of the ghost’s victims. The ghost herself? It is not exactly the most testing role for Clarke since it is largely reliant upon makeup and post-production than dialogue. She makes some firm enough glares and creepy movements, though some of her vocals could have required other takes.
So that is uneven acting, cheap visuals, wonky CGI, poor sound design. What else can be added to that list? The writing has its strong moments, as Tom and Leah do come off as a believable couple. Some of their scenes, particularly in the first act, sound like things almost every British couple has gone through- if not couples in general. Even some of the tense scares and subplots show some intrigue, but it does get weaker once the scares come in. The film shows the couple losing their sanity through confusing writing and a warped timeline that is hard for the audience to follow. It is suggested the Vale traps people for years on end, but is that true or is it all in the couple’s heads?
It certainly feels like real time, as the film has a lot of padding; there are plenty of scenes that go on way longer than they should. Sometimes it has a point, like Tom coming across some ominous props in the wood. Other times he is just washing his face by a pool or filling his bottle at a nearby stream. This particularly hurts when the film chooses to tell potentially thrilling scenes through narration instead of showing them. Why show them something exciting when they can watch someone’s hiking holiday instead?
Ultimately, Dark Vale might have been a reasonable short film, but it ended up being a feature-length slog. It does show some promise, though unfortunately it does not make up for its own faults. In fact, the faults only become more apparent as the film goes on and work against its pluses. What is a movie fan to do? Give this one a miss and stick to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project instead, as it has a similar premise but it is better at building up tension. It even has that cheap charm going for it too thanks to its crappy camcorder! As such, for these reasons, CrypticRock gives Dark Vale 1.5 out of 5 stars.