Like most movie critics, I'd like to make a movie or two. And watching the films of Mickey Keating, I got very, very movie critic jealous. At the age of 25, he's made four feature-length films. The man's genuine love of the horror genre permeates every scene in his recently released features, Darling and Carnage Park. Much like Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon and Jonathan Straiton's Night Of Something Strange, I walked away knowing I had watched the film Keating wanted to make. If there were any concessions made to satisfy a bean counter, I didn't notice them.
As he has in Keating's other work, horror auteur Larry Fessenden makes a guest appearance in both films. Both films star young women. Both films are beautifully lensed by Mac Fisken. Both films clock in at a brisk running time of less than 90 minutes in length. But that's about where the similarities end.
Depending on your mood, Carnage Park could be seen as a Tarantino riff or a Tarantino rip-off as the movie begins with a scene familiar to anyone who has seen Reservoir Dogs. Carnage Park opens with two bank robbers — one driving while the other lays in the backseat yowling from a fresh bullet wound. Before long, we meet the robbers' hostage, Vivian (Ashley Bell). Thanks to some Tarantino-y time jump edits, how we got to this bloody point in our program is revealed. And just like the Crazy 88's scene in Kill Bill, the music has a decidedly upbeat vibe considering the on-screen mayhem. Even the dialogue starts to take on a "Royale With Cheese" feel.
Before too long, Vivian becomes the main focus of the film as she stumbles through a barren California desert while being terrorized by a crazed Vietnam vet, Wyatt Moss (Pat Healy), who loves him some sniping. As this occurs, Wyatt's reluctant sheriff brother (Alan Ruck — a.k.a Cameron Frye from Ferris Bueller's Day Off) tries to capture this unknown sniper.
Around the time Vivian becomes the latest participant in Wyatt's version of the most dangerous game, the tone shifts into nightmare mode. The pop oddities that littered the soundtrack give way to Giona Ostinelli's atonal score. The editing becomes less breezy, more jarring. The performances by Bell and Healy become less sane with each passing minute. What started out as Reservoir Fiction becomes The Wolf Creek Chainsaw Massacre.
Pat Healy has many performances under his belt, but his recent unhinged turns in the twisted comedy Cheap Thrills and the grueling crime drama Compliance have shown that the man knows how to dig into that menacing part that lurks deep within every person. The same goes for Ashley Bell, who is best known for one-upping Linda Blair in the possessed woman department in The Last Exorcism movies. Carnage Park is yet another film where they get to show off another profound, disturbing level of batshit scary.
But while the madness in Carnage Park was overt and spacious, the madness in Darling is covert and narrow.
Darling, like Keating's other works, wears its influences on it's sleeve. This time Roman Polanski's Repulsion and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining seem to be the inspirations for his take on psychodrama.
From the first scene between the quiet Darling (Lauren Ashley Carter) and the icy Madame (Sean Young), we know this film won't end with a smiley face. Darling has been hired as a caretaker at a creepy old mansion in Manhattan. But there is more to this mansion, just like the Overlook in Kubrick's film, than the suffocating quiet and mysterious rooms. Like Polanski's Carol Ledoux and Kubrick's Jack Torrance, Darling's inner turmoil is off the charts. With minimal dialogue, ear piercing sound cues (again by Ostinelli), and a black and white palette, we are treated to a descent that stylistically and narratively echoes Polanski's Repulsion. Throughout the course of the film, we're treated to bursts of violence loud enough to puncture the unsettling quiet as Darling slowly becomes a predator to an unwitting soul and prey to the mansion's lingering evil. When it comes to Darling, there is little else to describe in the way of plot. The point of the film is the aesthetic journey. To merely heap praise upon the film's claustrophobic beauty, though, is unfair to the wonderful performance by Carter. From her first appearance in the film, we see the torment and the awaiting tragedy in her doleful eyes. With very few words, she effectively communicates how lost Darling is.
At this point in his career, Keating seems to be content exploring the innumerable sub-genres of the horror/thriller category. Some may view his directorial output as the malignant source of malleability, but given his incredible range working within the perceived trappings of the genre, he'll likely become more than the next director-for-hire. Color me jealous.