A psychiatric hospital. A woman who nobody will believe. A creepy family in a remote farmhouse. A secret sect with a blood fascination. THE DARK RED sets all these pieces into place and initially appears to tick all the boxes for a successful psychological thriller. Unfortunately, a stark tonal shift midway through the film deflates the strong atmosphere established in the build-up, leaving the rest of the plot to slog through a marsh of bland action and hurried exposition to an underwhelming finale.
The story follows Sybil (April Billingsley), an inpatient at a psychiatric hospital who has a history of schizophrenia, an undefined telepathic ability, and an abducted baby that nobody believes exists. Through flashback, Sybil recounts to Dr. Deluce (Kelsey Scott) meeting David (Conal Byrne), falling in love with him, and eventually becoming pregnant with his child. Near the due date, David takes Sybil to his family’s remote farmhouse, for a long-overdue introduction to his parents, William (John Curran) and Rose (Rhoda Griffis). During dinner, the in-laws show an unhealthy interest in Sybil’s “gift”, making it clear that she has been brought to them for a reason, and that reason is growing inside her belly.
The initial set up to THE DARK RED is very successful in establishing a daunting atmosphere and an intriguing mystery. Split into chapter-esque “sessions”, the early scenes cut between Sybil’s therapy with Deluce, and flashbacks of the traumatic experience as she tells it. The former is an arena for both actresses to shine, with Billingsley, in particular, showing incredible dramatic range as she takes Sybil through a rollercoaster of anguish, mania, and fury. The flashbacks present a disturbing and enticing narrative, made creepier still by the invasive and disorientating score from Ben Lovett, albeit one that feels quite familiar – the basic premise of the main character being taken into the woods by their partner to meet their overly-friendly, WASP parents, who then obsess over the protagonist’s otherness and try to exploit it for personal gain, bears a strong resemblance to Jordan Peele’s GET OUT.
Though the first half is not without its flaws (Scott’s Deluce, for instance, gets too personal and too aggressive with her patient to pass for realistic), the initial combination of intense, dramatic therapy scenes and the eerie disquiet of the farmhouse promises an exciting psychological thriller, with a focus on the questionable reliability of its narrator. Unfortunately, when Sybil is released from the hospital, writers Dan Bush and Conal Byrne take a sharp left turn, dropping the atmosphere built up in the first half, and opting instead for a schlocky revenge flick aesthetic. When paired with some hurried exposition regarding Sybil’s poorly-defined “special blood” and the secret cult that wants to take it from her, the ending feels quite anticlimactic, and not on a par with the quality that was suggested in the beginning.
Dan Bush, who also directed, proves his ability to create a strong atmosphere and compelling intrigue, as well as establishing his willingness to take risks with narrative form. While the experimentation ultimately squanders most of the good work done in the first half of the film, it doesn’t completely undermine it, as Billingsley’s excellent performance continues into the finale. THE DARK RED shows a great deal of promise early on, with all the makings of a successful entry into a popular genre, but given the dip in quality after the halfway mark, it’s unlikely that any secret cult will be scheming to get their hands on this film anytime soon.