The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
Andrew Cumming delivers a homegrown, hominid horror, rooted in antiquity and primal fears
This piece has been updated to reflect the change in the film’s title to Out of Darkness, originally it played at Fantastic Fest as The Origin
Out of Darkness (originally entitled The Origin) opens with a flicker in the darkness. A campfire on the shoreline of what comes to be known as Scotland, 45,000 years ago. Gathered around are the remnants of a tribe. Wrapped in furs, armed with spears, sharing a story in a language that is unfamiliar. They are few in number, after escaping hardship, and surviving a sea-crossing to this island in search of a better life. Instead of that which was promised, they find a barren land of wind-lashed plains and foreboding forests. Starving, and exposed to the elements, they set out for a rocky hilltop in the distance and the hopes of shelter. Their perilous trek soon becomes more stark as they become aware of something moving around them after the sun sets. In the dark, one of their own is snatched away. Fear engulfs the group as they realize that their attempts to survive have only just begun.
The campfire provides more than just exposition for the flight of these people, but also their backstories and the pecking order within this extended family. Adem (Chuku Mudu) is the alpha male who deigns to be swayed by others opinions. By his side is his young son Heron (Luna Mwezi), and partner Ave (Iola Evans) who is carrying his second child. Rounding out the core is Adem’s more hesitant younger brother Gierr (Kit Young), and the elder of the group Odal (Arno Luening) who treads a line between offering counsel and conflict to his leader. Lastly in the pecking order if Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green), a ‘stray’ the group picked up along the way. They each have their own skills they bring to the group, hunter, healer, forager. It’s in this community they should find the strength to survive, but instead they mine conflict. Two philosophies emerge, the first that this force in the dark is an animal that can be killed, the second, that it is a demon that must be appeased. A battle of wills with all their lives on the line.
Director Andrew Cumming, working from a script from Ruth Greenberg, expertly mines human (and animalistic) instincts to build an atmosphere of paranoia and fear, and a story where the right and wrong choices play out in a game of life or death. One of the most interesting aspects is the ascent of Beyah, (an enthralling debut performance from Oakley-Green), who is gradually buoyed by the mismanagement of the situation, and begins to challenge the group, as well as her role in it. A stone age final girl you’ll come to root for, mostly.
While Out of Darkness certainly shares some DNA with films like The Descent, The Ritual, and Pitch Black, it carves out its own unique space through its immersion in antiquity. The film’s Q&A shared insight into the archeological finds that inspired the story, with the narrative adding in levels of mysticism and cultural facets that nicely build out this era. Most notable is the use of a linguist to develop a fictional language called “Tola”. Guttural, but poetic, it’s a key aspect of how immersive the film is. Frenetic editing from Paulo Pandolpho adds to the chaotic air, occasionally tempered by still moments, where attempts to fortify a position or catch a breath reinforce the relentlessness of this dark-shrouded threat. Cinematography Ben Fordesman skillfully uses minimal lighting to dramatic effect, illuminating the strengths of both performers and production. Sound design is superb, leveraging every rustle, creak, or snap in the forest surrounds, while the score from Adam Janota Bzowski (Saint Maud) delivers an era-appropriate bombardment of drums and horns.
All these elements combine to create something familiar, but ancient in tone. A propulsive, paranoia-infused, paleolithic survival film. The (original) title, and tale told in Out of Darkness could speak to our own first steps into this new land. In a way, framing these people as the original colonizers. The negative connotations of this term holding up to scrutiny in the film’s climax. But interpreted in a more primal sense, it could also speak to our enduring fear of the dark. This is where the film truly makes its mark. By immersing us in an era where our enduring savage instincts meet those of the time, reminding us to fear the darkness, within and without