Out of Darkness works as a brutal slice of primitive survival horror, even if its ideas about violence and human nature feel a little well-worn.
Sitting at the exact intersection between survival movie and monster movie, Out of Darkness may prey on fears of the unknown, but it seeks to do more than that, too. This tale about a group of Stone Age-era humans searching a stretch of newly-discovered land in hopes of a new home where they can prosper does indeed find terror lurking in the shadows of this pristine, strange world. But it also asks the questions of where that fear comes from, and if barbarity and inhumanity is an inexorable part of our nature.
A lot of that stuff comes later, though. The first half of Out of Darkness operates on the level of primal genre cinema, as this group of survivors face their growing desperation in the face of starvation, as well as the more physical threat of strange creatures stalking, and eventually hunting, the group one by one. Brawny commander of the group Adem (Chuku Modu) leads his aptly named pregnant wife Ave (Iola Evans), son Heron (Luna Mwezi) younger brother Geirr (Kit Young), elder scavenger Odal (Arno Leuning), and outcasted “stray” Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green), as the six of them contend with the harsh realities of trying to cultivate a new home—a task exacerbated by the seemingly supernatural monsters trying to kill them at night.
With only the feeble flames of a fire to fortify themselves, Out of Darkness mines plenty of effective tension out of the imposing, primeval Scottish landscape and sequences of the mysterious, encroaching beasts. Director Andrew Cumming, in his debut feature, displays adept instincts as far as the correct moments to hold back and, conversely, to push forward with suspense, allowing the intensity to vacillate as the monsters edge closer every night. As a film made up of a surfeit of particularly dark environments in a time where drab, poorly lit films are the norm, scenes here make proficient use of the nighttime environments. Cinematographer Ben Fordesman (who, along with co-producer Oliver Kassman worked on Rose Glass’s Saint Maud and the upcoming Love Lies Bleeding) cleverly stages events to keep the antagonists shrouded in obscurity without rendering events illegible.
The cast, for their part, helps maintain the invariably foreboding tone of the film through a collection of dour, though strong, performances. There’s not a moment of levity to be found as the group of survivors trudge along through a land beset by a perpetually gloomy overcast sky, inevitably trying to avoid violence among themselves. Though the screenplay lacks much emotional attachment, the performances maintain a collective sense of anguish, with Oakley-Green and Kit Young eventually coming to the fore as the two highlights, as they attempt to flourish in a world besieged by brutality. Every member maintains a convincing grasp on the film’s invented language—known as Tola—which helps offset some of the inexplicable touches of contemporaneity born out of certain lines of dialogue and the insoluble phenomenon known as “iPhone face” making its mark once again. Still, it’s impressive that, despite these hang-ups, the cast ultimately helps to sell the “45,000 years ago” premise.
It’s when the film finally gets around to deciding to be “about something” that it starts to have some dissonant results. The ultimate question—who are the real monsters in a world built on savagery?—is not a bad one, and the sturdy filmmaking almost helps to sell it as something more thought-provoking than it is. Ruth Greenberg’s script, built off a story by Cumming and Oliver Kassman, makes probing observations about human nature that are nonetheless overly familiar to themes that survival and revenge stories have interrogated a million times over. “What’s the price of violence?” “Are we innately barbaric?” Out of Darkness doesn’t reinvent its tropes enough to make these questions bear any sense of new discovery or meaning.
That said, it does play the hits with a sturdy enough hand and unique enough setting that you may be willing to overlook its blunt-force, commonplace ideas. There could be something to be said for the idea that these questions harken back to the birth of humankind and civilization, and that we’ve always been repeating the steps of our ancestors. Out of Darkness doesn’t set itself apart enough to totally sell this line of thinking, but its cold-blooded sense of primordial perseverance manages to leave an impression nonetheless.
Out of Darkness will be released in US theaters on February 9, 2024.