Saturday, December 16, 2023

#2,940. Darkroom (1989) - Thrillers of the '80s and '90s


After years away, Janet (Jill Pierce) has returned home for what she hopes will be a quiet weekend with her family. Joined eventually by her boyfriend, professional photographer Steve (Jeff Arbaugh), Janet enjoys the time she spends with her widowed mom Nora (Elizabeth Ince), her grandfather (John O’Connor), younger sister Cindy (Sara Lee Wade), and cousins Perry (Aarin Tiech) and Mark (Allen Lieberman). The only one missing from this little reunion is her sister Paula (Abigail Lenz), a free-spirit who has been dating George (Timothy Hicks), a local outcast who lives in a trailer by the river.

When Paula doesn’t return home that first night, Janet, Steve, and Cindy assure a worried Nora that they will stop by George’s trailer and bring her back. Instead, they find Paula’s lifeless, blood-soaked body tied to George’s bed, kicking off a chain of events in which more than one person in this normally peaceful community will meet a grisly end.

Produced by low-budget master Nico Mastorakis and directed by Terrence O’Hara, 1989’s Darkroom features moments that harken back to the slashers of the decade’s early years. The opening sequence, in which a young couple is butchered in their home with an ax, certainly gives off slasher vibes, and there’s a scene involving a car and a machete that would have been at home in any Friday the 13th movie.

Ultimately, though, Darkroom is more a mystery / thriller, with plenty of red herrings to keep us guessing, for the better part of an hour, as to which of its character is the actual killer. The story also crosses from time to time into dark territory, and because we grow to like Janet’s family, we feel the loss whenever something terrible happens to them.

Shot primarily on a remote orange grove in Southern California, Darkroom also successfully conveys its characters’ feelings of isolation, especially when they are unable to report Paula’s death because the phones are out, and the nearest town is 20 miles away.

The film occasionally suffers from some of the weaknesses you’re likely to find in many low-budget movies, including performances that range from very good (Jeff Arbaugh is particularly strong) to borderline terrible. And when it came time to finally reveal of the killer’s identity, I had already figured it out. Though to be fair, I only put two-and-two together about 3-4 minutes before the movie itself spilled the beans, and there were moments when I was convinced that two other characters, ultimately innocent, were committing these murders. So, as a mystery, Darkroom works (even if said reveal shines a light on some gaping plot holes that are never satisfied).

Where Darkroom really impressed me, though, was in the last act. The movie continues a full half-hour after the killer’s identity is divulged, and these last scenes are among the film’s most intense, and most heartbreaking. So even if Darkroom isn’t perfect (and it certainly isn’t), it’s far from a total loss, and is worth a watch.
Rating: 6.5 out of 10

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