There’s no dearth of movies about prehistoric man; stories of the earliest days of (pre)civilization span the campy histrionics of something like 10,000 BC to the more anthropologically-minded Quest for Fire and The Clan of the Cave Bear. It’s a genre ripe with potential, allowing for plenty of variations on big themes — nascent language skills and familial bonds, hunting vs. gathering, nature vs. nurture, and so on and so forth. Andrew Cumming’s debut feature Out of Darkness might be the first to add a dose of Predator to the mix, as he fashions a tale of survival horror set 45,000 years in the past. Here, a small group of wanderers find themselves huddled around a fire, in desperate need of shelter. The eldest, Odal (Arno Lüning), regales young Heron (Luna Mwezi) with a bedtime story that explains their current troubles; Heron’s father, Adem (Chuku Modu), is the leader of the pack, and has guided them across the ocean from their barren home to this “new world” in hopes of discovering more fertile lands. But despite their best efforts, the group has yet to find a suitable home, only rocky terrain and constant exposure to the elements. The rest of the group consists of Ave (Iola Evans), Aden’s mate who is currently with child; Geirr (Kit Young), Aden’s younger brother; and Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green), a stray who has been adopted into the group on the grounds that someday she’ll be able to produce children. Indeed, Beyah’s discovery that she has begun menstruating sets in motion a cascading series of events, which in turn are exasperated by something that goes bump on the night.
The makeshift group of fellow travelers immediately begins to fall apart as soon as pressure mounts; upon learning of her transition into womanhood, Adem casually informs Beyah that she will bear him a child soon. Odal, the most superstitious of them, worries that menstrual blood will attract demons and believes the land to be cursed. Ave is unsympathetic to Beyah’s obvious discomfort at being used as an incubator, informing the young woman that as she is not a hunter, it is the only service Beyah can provide the group. Further complicating an already fractious situation, the men stumble across the carcass of a mammoth. Determining that something big and smart herded the creature over the side of a cliff, they are now certain that something is hunting them as well. As nighttime descends, something does, in fact, emerge from the dark and snatch Heron, leading to Adem dragging the group into a dense forest to track him down. The group protests; this is uncharted territory, and is interrupting their search for caves or other shelter. Undaunted, Adem presses on, only to be attacked by the same thing that took Heron. Disorganized, now without a leader, hungry, and with a baby on the way, the group descends into chaos.
Clearly designed as, and marketed as, a kind of horror movie, Out of Darkness unfurls this plot quickly; Cumming delivers the requisite suspense (and even some brief but effective ultra-violence), but seems most interested in somber, moody atmospherics. Aided immeasurably by eerie, atonal music by Adam Janota Bzowski and exquisite cinematography by Ben Fordesman, the film is tense but patient. Shot mostly in natural, available light, with minimal post-production color correction, Out of Darkness occasionally resembles the landscape films of Scott Barley or Chris Lynn; human figures are constantly juxtaposed against vast expanses of wide open spaces, or contrasted with the claustrophobic density of the forest. It’s beautiful to look at, even as every sound of twigs snapping and branches swaying indicates potential danger. It’s a fine achievement, a low-budget genre film that has more on its mind than simple thrills — though it delivers those, too. In a broad sense, Out of Darkness plays like an attempt to document a kind of original sin of humanity: the birth of settler violence and internecine warfare. It’s big, bold stuff, which gives the proceedings a philosophical heft to accompany the ripped limbs and cannibalism.
DIRECTOR: Andrew Cumming; CAST: Safia Oakley-Green, Kit Young, Chuku Modu, Iola Evans; DISTRIBUTOR: Bleecker Street; IN THEATERS: February 9; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 27 min.