Despite having the perfect setting for a horror movie and a water-bound cult theme, The Dark Mile frustrates where it should fright. Set in the desolate Scottish Highlands, with a special appearance from Sheila Hancock, Gary Love’s second directorial turn at the EIFF makes a mess of what could have been a chilling psychological thriller.
In the wake of a personal tragedy, London-based couple Louise (Rebecca Calder) and Claire (Deidre Mullins) decide to take a trip to Scotland and attempt to mend their relationship. After hiring a beautiful boat from Kevin (Paul Brannigan), they begin to sail through the rugged landscape, but a chance encounter with some of the local residents in a bar sends things spiralling out of control. Pursued by a menacing, hulking black trawler, the pair begin to realise that there are more sinister forces at work.
Such a plot should have proved unsinkable, with allusions to Deliverance and Rosemary’s Baby mooring Love’s film in enjoyably murky waters. And yet the pace of The Dark Mile threatens to capsize the entire movie. Initially slow, the film gradually builds up to reveal that things are not what they seem. The second act closes in a thundering crescendo of mayhem and madness, leaving the viewer expectant for an incredible finale. But, rather startlingly, the credits roll. With such an abrupt close, the viewer is left wondering where the rest of the movie is. At only 87 minutes The Dark Mile is surely missing an act? I, for one, felt that another half hour of chaos would have served the film better than the prolonged exposition regarding the couple.
Another issue that threatens to sink Love’s film is the underdeveloped characters. Whilst the local residents are incredibly creepy, the main characters come across as remote and almost as unlikeable. Facts revealed about Claire make it impossible to root for her and Louise seems a cold, annoying, unresponsive shell of a person. Perhaps Gaby Hull’s screenplay is responsible for the lack of character development, since they remain infuriatingly opaque throughout. Even the ‘twist character’ is clearly not who they seem from the get go. And although the cinematography is consistently bleak and sinister – dreich weather casts shadows over dark hills and freezing-cold highland water – surely more should be made of the main characters? Surely viewers should at least care a bit for them?
As a cinema-goer I don’t expect all my questions to be answered by the end of a feature, but The Dark Mile sets up a jigsaw puzzle of occult clues over its brief runtime that I’d expect to come together, at least partially. Perhaps a knowledge of ancient Scottish mythology would fill the gaps a little? Maybe an appreciation for generic creepiness – dolls with missing eyes, weird girls walking around in night-dresses, darkened corridors with dead ends – might compensate for some. But, for me, there were far too many details left unexplained.
However, the film is not without its charms. The last 20 minutes borders on brilliance, with a palpable unease developing, only to momentarily give way to some unpredictable plot turns. Again, another 30 mins could have drawn the film to a fittingly terrifying conclusion. As it stands, Love’s film struggles to entertain, let alone terrify, with poor symbolism, a dogged pace and unlikeable main characters rendering The Dark Mile a bit of a depressing mess.
Featured image: CineVue.