I’m a sucker for mole people, ask anyone. CHUDs, Morlocks, really any kind of (preferably ancient) subterranean race of humanoid monsters. Bonus points if they’re tied in with some sort of hollow earth stuff. If I know that a movie or a book or whatever has such creatures in it, then chances are I’m on board, even if I am also usually disappointed by their portrayal, especially when it comes to movies, which never take the concept far enough for my tastes. So of course when I saw the trailer for Deep in the Darkness, I knew that I was going to watch it, and I was just as confident that I was going to be let down.
For those who haven’t seen the trailer, the plot involves a doctor who moves out of Manhattan to take a job in a small town that’s under the thumb of an ancient race of subterranean “wild men” called Isolates. Apparently adapted from the Michael Laimo novel of the same name, which I’ve never read, Deep in the Darkness is pretty obviously part of a long-standing pulp tradition of regressed races of subterranean cannibals. Howard’s “The Worms of the Earth” and Lovecraft’s “The Lurking Fear” number among this film’s ancestors, and there are even small threads of the ancient pre-human races that populated Manly Wade Wellman’s stories, and maybe just a pinch of Clive Barker’s “The Midnight Meat Train.” Don’t let any of that fool you, though. While Deep in the Darkness is obviously mining that vein, it never strikes out into any particularly novel or exciting territory. (The parallels with “The Lurking Fear” come farther to the fore in the film’s “twist ending,” and the stunt casting of Dean Stockwell makes the weird fiction connection overt, in case you might otherwise have missed it.)
Word has it that Laimo was inspired by the 1973 TV version of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark when he was writing the novel, and the Isolates bear more than a little resemblance to the similar creatures in Neil Marshall’s superior Descent, albeit less Nosferatu-y.
I’m not really giving anything away by talking about the monsters, because the trailer makes their nature pretty clear, and even if it didn’t, the movie tells you what they are right away, in the first of several exposition dumps. While Descent is a vastly superior horror film, Deep in the Darkness does have the distinction of going a more interesting direction with its subterranean monsters, even if it never fully commits. Points to the filmmakers—or possibly to Laimo’s source material—for dipping their toes a little more deeply into the pulpy roots of the Isolates, but Deep in the Darkness would have been improved a hundredfold by even something as simple as a single scene with some giant ancient statue in one of the catacombs, some indicator of a grander civilization of which the Isolates were the degenerate remnants. (To see what I really, really want from a movie about a race of subterranean humanoids, see any given B.P.R.D. comic in which the hollow earth people show up.)
There are some good opportunities in Deep in the Darkness, though they are largely squandered. The town where something is amiss is always a good source of paranoia, but here it is used mainly as a way to push the plot along, and the town matriarch is all set up to be a good source of villainy, but she hardly appears in the film. And while the Isolates just sort of look like dirty humans who all bear a passing resemblance to Immortan Joe, the movie does a good job of having them haunt the edges of the screen, and the actors playing them move with a weirdly graceful rolling gait that does a lot to make them more monster than person. There’s a particularly good scene when the Isolates swarm into the doctor’s house where their sudden appearance from the shadows is decently chilling.
Unfortunately, any good qualities of the film are largely overshadowed by its fairly pedestrian execution. It makes the same mistake that I see a lot of contemporary horror films make, of starting in with the spooky music and camera work before anything actually spooky has happened. The town’s dark secret is revealed right away—both to the audience, and to our protagonist—but the reasons why people don’t just pack up and leave town are never made to feel as immediate as they need to be in order to sell this premise. There’s some foreshadowing about the reason for the wife’s weird transformation as a character, but not enough to carry you through to the reveal at the end, after she has already performed another about-face. There’s the deus ex machina delivery that our protagonist receives shortly after moving into his new house, for reasons that are never well explained, which telegraphs the film’s climax 100%. And of course, there are lots and lots and lots of sequences of people wandering slowly through houses looking for other people.
Ultimately, Deep in the Darkness occupies that horror movie middle ground that is often more damning than if it had actually been bad. It’s solidly made, with a few good qualities and a lot of problems that will work for some people and infuriate others, but probably be forgettable to most, myself included. It wouldn’t even bear reportage, were it not for my aforementioned affection for its tropes. It’s on Netflix instant right now, and if you’ve got a particular soft spot for Towns with Dark Secrets or subterranean monster people, then you could do worse than to check it out. Otherwise, probably give it a pass.
[This post previously appeared on my Patreon.]