Relying upon genre convention may not make see this thriller cultivate an enduring enigma, but it does offer a diverting attempt.
The locked room mystery is a staple of the detective genre, telling of seemingly impossible circumstances and offering a puzzle to be solved. Within a space it appears no one could have absconded from, typically secured from the inside, evidence of trouble lurks. In The Fear of Darkness, blood splashes walls and drips from items in an isolated, lakeside house; however only the hallucinogen-affected Skye Williams (Penelope Mitchell, TV's The Vampire Diaries) is found at the scene. Missing is her friend and fellow university student Jeremy Winters (newcomer Jacob Irvine), with the detective on the case (Damien Garvey, Manny Lewis) suspecting the worst even in the absence of a body.
Enter another tried and tested element of such cryptic tales: the gifted expert with a knack for delving into the human mind, here assuming focus as the figure charged with unlocking the truth. Psychiatrist Dr. Sarah Faithfull (Maeve Dermody, Serangoon Road) is also a newly published author on the subject of supernatural manifestations of anxieties about death, her book giving the film its title. Using hypnosis and then old-fashioned investigation, she attempts to unravel Skye's buried memories of the incident, uncovering details that prove increasingly otherworldly and unsettling.
The reliance upon well-worn components doesn't end there in this moody, often moonlit effort, a feature comfortable with its adherence to genre stereotypes and confident in slickly splicing them together. Characters exchange expository dialogue in hushed tones, deadlines are enforced to add urgency to the narrative, and backstories are shared to enhance the commonalities between the two protagonists. The camera inches slowly around corners to heighten the tension, just as the score lets its atmospheric sounds echo with unnerving whispers and swell with piercing sirens.
In story and in style, it's suspense filmmaking 101, as writer/director Chris Fitchett – more recently known as a producer of fellow local efforts Blurred, Under the Radar and A Heartbeat Away, and stepping into the helmer's seat for the first time in three decades – clearly knows. And yet, as familiar as the many machinations seem as the movie works towards the customary reveal, The Fear of Darkness never suffers from malaise or complacency in sticking to type, nor stops trying to toy with the audience.
Indeed, as sinister and surreal concepts earn increasingly frequent mentions, reminding audiences that all is not as it appears, the film relishes its foreseeable twists as much as it does its formulaic conventions. When Mystery Road's Aaron Pederson becomes the voice of logic and reason, positing that the spooky dramatics lurk only in the leads' heads, it's both a predictable and welcome inclusion. So too the work of Mitchell and Dermody, who may be gifted the strongest roles, but also offer convincing, textured portrayals beyond the textbook requirements of the script. The easily recognisable feature that results may not offer an enduring enigma, but it does wrestle obvious parts into a workable, diverting whole of expected genre thrills.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
The Fear of Darkness
Director: Chris Fitchett
Australia, 2014, 90 mins
Gold Coast Film Festival
9–19 April 2015