On the outside, the English-language debut of French director Marina de Van looks like a traditional supernatural thriller, complete with a requisite “creepy” kid, and mysterious telekinetic powers. On the inside, Dark Touch is a heartrendingly sad, unflinchingly intimate exploration of the trauma of abuse: a horror movie that draws its nightmares from the sordid, squalid corners of real life. While de Van is possibly best known for her 2002 art house self-cannibalism shocker In My Skin, her latest feature proves that her ability to viscerally assault and disturb audiences remains undeterred.
Set in a bleak, isolated Irish village, the film centers around eight year old Niamh (played by a mesmerizing Missy Keating). Niamh’s parents and younger brother are brutally killed after their home appears to turn on them when inanimate objects and innocuous furniture are possessed by a murderous, destructive rage. Niamh, the only witness to the tragedy, is fostered by her late parents’ friends, a well-meaning but ultimately ineffective couple. It quickly becomes clear that Niamh is nursing a destructive, inarticulate rage of her very own – one with roots in her horrific past experiences at the hands of her parents.
In some ways, Dark Touch is a horrifying visualization of the idea that, if you bruise, terrorize and injure someone, you’re extremely likely to create someone with a desire to hurt others. The theme of child abuse is central to the film. Rather than presenting the fact that Niamh was abused by her parents as a twist, or baldly spelling it out, the film instead confronts viewers with a number of unmistakable visual clues, including a stomach-churning opening shot. This leads to an uncomfortable situation, in which the audience is well-aware of Niamh’s secret, whilst other adults on-screen remain frustratingly oblivious.
There are echoes here of horror classic Carrie, but the film that Dark Touch most strongly evokes is 2008’s Swedish vampire drama, Let The Right One In. Both films create a powerful sense of empathy for a wronged child, forcing audiences to side with the character against the adult world, vicariously reveling in their revenge even as unspeakable horrors unfold. This conflict is ultimately one of the most powerful aspects of de Van’s film. Dark Touch is definitely worth checking out, but audiences should prepare themselves for an emotionally complex, often difficult viewing experience.
Another recent horror release, Dark Tourist, echoes some of the themes of Dark Touch (and also, coincidentally, shares a somewhat similar title). In stark contrast to the rain swept farmland of rural Ireland, Suri Krishnamma’s dark psychological drama takes place in the cafes and seedy motels of sweltering, mid-summer New Orleans. At the heart of the film, however, is a familiar motif: the idea that the abuse of a young child is often just the start of a vicious cycle, that will inevitably lead to further pain, misery, and violence.
Michael Cudlitz (best known for the television show Southland) stars as security guard Jim Tahna. Jim is a “grief tourist,” spending his vacations visiting locations associated with notorious serial killers. The latest object of his fascination is serial arsonist and murderer Carl Marznap (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who inspires Jim’s trip to New Orleans. Despite striking up a fledgling relationship with local waitress Betsey (Melanie Griffith), Jim soon finds his obsession with Marznap spiraling out of control, as he begins to feel an intimate connection with the killer.
One of the most powerful aspects of Dark Tourist is the way in which, through Jim’s journey into a murderer’s past, the film effectively forces the audience to become a voyeuristic “grief tourist” themselves. Through Jim’s eyes, we witness the “birth” of serial killer Marznap, and experience a level of identification, however unwilling, with the monster at the heart of the story. The film details the abuse Marznap suffered as a child, and Marznap’s later murders: both tragedies are presented as equally horrifying, equally deserving of our compassion. Krishnamma’s film plays with the question of whether it is better to be remembered as “a victim” or “a killer,” evoking a claustrophobic, irreparably broken world where these two choices really are the only ones on offer.
It’s probably fair to say that Dark Tourist won’t appeal to everyone. The film’s rare moments of warmth and tenderness – exemplified by Griffith’s character Betsey – are juxtaposed with Cudlitz’s chilling portrayal of obsession, darkness and brutality. There’s an intense evocation of dread throughout: a crawling, fetid sense of evil, which some viewers may simply find too repellent to watch. Nonetheless, for those who can sit through it, Dark Tourist is well worth a watch, presenting a convincingly brutal, occasionally heart-breaking immersion into the mind of a serial killer.
Dark Touch: 4/5, Dark Tourist: 4/5