From writer and director Dan Bush comes his most recent venture: The Dark Red. The film follows Sybil Warren (April Billingsley), a patient in a psychiatric hospital, as she recounts her trauma to her doctor, Dr Deluce (Kelsey Scott). When we first meet Sybil, she is distant and defensive, attempting to convince Dr Deluce that her baby was not stillborn, but rather stolen by a cult seeking the rare attributes the baby possessed. It’s in these sessions between Sybil and the doctor that the bulk of the film takes place. It’s also here that the film boasts its most impressive performances, which are given within the boundaries of a well-written but limited dialogue, as flashbacks and montages fill the spaces in-between.
Sybil hasn’t had an easy life, and though her mental health issues play a role in her story, they are neither the cause of nor a limit to what she can do, or what she has done. Her struggles with her mental health are only ever used as an excuse by others in their believing of her story. It’s refreshing to see a horror film avoid using mental wellbeing as a story device, and instead explore and criticise the ways in which those with such struggles are patronised and dismissed by the system. In the back and forth between Sybil and Dr Deluce, however, the viewer remains uncertain in terms of what is truth and what is delusion.
The Dark Red is at its most interesting when teasing whether or not the high-concept story is reality or a deception. Unfortunately, where the film attempts to make this easy to understand, it fails in building suspense for its final act. With a run-time of just over an hour and a half, an extra thirty minutes would have been justifiable in maintaining the tension and making the film’s conclusion seem all the more satisfying. The Dark Red seems to draw inspiration from the well-received Get Out, particularly tonally, but it denies itself the subtler mode of storytelling utilised by Jordan Peele in Get Out’s final scenes. When entering the final act in The Dark Red, the pace becomes slightly jarring, and the film appears to evolve from the psychological thriller it set out as.
The Dark Red is well-devised and believable, despite the aforementioned high-concept plot. April Billingsley delivers as Sybil, making intelligent decisions in crisis, and ultimately escaping the typical conventions of horror that have dictated its female characters in the past. The film is well-directed, without shots relying too heavily on the film’s environment or ‘bird in a cage’ symbolism. Plus, music by Ben Lovett complements the film throughout. Lovett also composed for many of Bush’s earlier films, such as The Signal and The Reconstruction of William Zero.
Towards the end, The Dark Red begins to run before it can walk, but this doesn’t do a disservice to the incredibly suspenseful first hour. The film nonetheless maintains an intriguing and compelling story throughout.
Check out the trailer below: