Jason Horton and Blaine Cade's Edges of Darkness is the kind of low-budget arthouse film that, given its uneven acting and shoe-string budget production values, is still important to watch for those flashes of good writing and good direction that shine through. In three separate stories following people dealing with a zombie apocalypse in their own ways, God and Devil, vampires, and organic computing provide the unusual themes wrapped around this flesh-eating grue.
While the stories do not intertwine, they are intercut, which at times jostles the pacing and dramatic continuity. Tying them together is the gated community locale, an unrelenting threat from zombies lumbering just outside, and the need for satisfying hungers that go beyond flesh-munching closeups and dripping gristle.
Even in the least engrossing story there is a wonderful and unexpected flash of macabre poetry shown when Dana (Alisha Gaddis) dreams she is dancing with a roomful of zombies. It is compelling, like the dance of the dead in Carnival of Souls and the dancing dead in Robert Aickman's short story, Ringing the Changes, because it plays with our sense of propriety. It is unsettling enough that the only person who listens to her is Morris (Wayne Baldwin) the zombie--out of reach, of course--outside her bedroom window, while her husband writes endlessly on his computer. Has he gone mad from the stress? Who does he think will read his story? We never find out, and instead watch as he eagerly plugs in the weird computer chip from DHell. When the lights go out, it starts searching for an alternate power source, sending out wires (tentacles) that first power-up from a house plant, then a mouse, and eventually you know what.
While Dana yearns for romance, her husband Dean yearns for backup power. Uneven acting almost cripples the pent-up tension and despair here.The climax is predictable, but the relationship between Dana and Dean (Jay Costelo) provides a refreshing psychological perspective seldom seen in more mainstream fare. We need to explore more atypical relationships like this one in the cinema of the undead, and devote time to the frustrated, freaked-out, living, coping with the voracious dead, instead of the over-used gut-churning closeups of zombies feasting.
The most engrossing story revolves around another desperate couple, Stan (Alonzo F. Jones) and Stellie (Shamika Ann Franklin), trapped in their apartment and starving. (Horton must have a thing for married couple's names starting with the same letter.) I am not sure if anyone before now has explored the unique situation arising when zombies deplete the local blood bank, but this particular man and woman hunger for blood and it is in very short supply. We are not certain they are vampires: the sunlight does not bother them; but they must feed on blood to survive. Their luck changes when Stan captures a petite woman, leading to an odd symbiotic relationship between the three of them; it is in their best interest to keep her alive, and it is in her best interest to let them do so.
Luck never seems to last in a zombie apocalypse, however, as Stan and Stellie soon realize. The blood from Natalie (Annemarie Pazmino) tastes bad, and she seems more than the helpless, frightened, girl she purports to be. Unfortunately, we are intentionally left wondering what that more may be. In his commentary, Horton criticizes the need for exposition here, preferring to leave it a mystery. But mysteries are no good if no clues are left, as done here, for what Natalie may be, or few clues are given to hint at what Stan and Stellie really are.
While Stan goes looking for food to keep Natalie alive, she and Stellie have a heart to heart chat--until Natalie starts bitch-slapping her around. When Stan returns, Natalie easily beats him up, too. She forces them to drink more of her blood, making her stronger somehow, while Stan and Stellie get weaker. Who or what is Natalie? We are left wondering. This story in the trilogy could have much more potential if extended. The combined acting here is the strongest presented in the movie. Horton directs the vampiric couple as victims, not superior beings, making us feel compassion for their situation. All they want to do is survive like anyone else.
The third story involves mean priests, God, Satan, and one head-cracking, zombie-slaying, woman with an attitude. Heather (Michelle Rose) rescues a young boy who is also more than he appears to be. I do not like religion over-spicing my zombie-mulligan stew, especially when it blurs the boundaries between good and evil. While there is a difference between the belief in the Almighty Something empowering the will to live, or, like in author Kim Paffenroth's Dying to Live, exploring the religious convictions of survivors in a zombie apocalypse, using the Almighty Something's (or Satan's) intervention in a zombie apocalypse warrants discretion. I admit it is a personal preference, but it can easily amount to what I will argue is a cheap shot. If any other religion besides Christianity is used in such a way, I have no doubt heads would roll; figuratively, and quite possibly literally these days. While no religion is above artistic expression or criticism, Christianity is always a safer bet than using any other. Just once I would love to see Rabbis kick some undead ass, or Muslims wipe the floor clean of zombies. Come on, independents, be really daring and make it so.
Horton juxtaposes who's to blame for the apocalypse in a novel way, and Lee Perkins briefly acts sinister in a cameo, while his fellow priests capture Heather. She escapes and learns why the priests are after the boy. At this point, the reason for her being who she is and what her purpose is in the movie is muddled, as the boy can easily take care of himself. The wrap-up leaves it all open-ended.
Edges of Darkness is hard to categorize into either good, bad, or indifferent, making it a difficult movie to find its market. It contains commercial elements that, if expanded upon, could move it into a more mainstream visibility, and artistic elements that, if sharpened, could hone those edges into a more dramatic execution for the fear, frustration, and desperation seen in a zombie world--no matter who started it. Whichever the case may be, it is not a movie easily dismissed, and I hope to see Jason Horton's work on a higher budgeted project in the future.
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