The Darkness Within (2009) – By Cary Conley

As a movie reviewer, I can’t tell you how many times I have received "thrillers" that are characterized in their synopses as "Hitchcockian." I always take a deep breath and then let out a long sigh, as the vast majority of these films don’t bear the slightest resemblance to a Hitchcock film. So it was that I sat down to watch "The Darkness Within" with more than a little reservation, for it is being billed as influenced by not only Hitchcock, but Kubrick as well.

Right off the bat, I must say I was very pleasantly surprised. There actually were some Hitchcockian moments, while the main storyline bears a striking resemblance to Kubricks "The Shining" (in fact, I believe at one point a character from the film actually draws a comparison with Kubrick’s film). Lest you think this is a rip-off, writer-director Dom Portalla manages to take Kubrick’s plot and turn it on its ear to create an inventive and tense little thriller.

Chad (Jimmy Scanlon) and Ashley (Michelle Romano) are excited to be moving to a new town and starting their lives over. Chad has just proposed to Ashley and the happy couple is eager to move into their newly rented apartment and get a fresh start. There are only two problems: the less-than-genial next-door neighbor and the huge spiders that seem to crop up on a regular basis. The spider incidents inject some fabulous humor into the story as Chad chastises Ashley about her embellishment of the spider’s size until Chad walks into the bathroom and shrieks like a girl, running from the room in astonishment. He comes racing back in wearing goggles, rubber gloves and carrying a can of hairspray to kill the thing. I laughed out loud at the entire sequence–it was genuinely funny.

Chad goes in search of the landlord who is supposed to live in the apartment above him only to find that the landlord’s daughter and sometime boyfriend live there. Jordan (Stephanie Maheu) and Dixon (Sean Pierce) spend their days smoking weed, drinking beer, playing video games and insulting each other with biting sarcasm. These sequences are also laugh-out-loud funny as the jokesters gleefully spew vulgarities at each other as well as Chad. These sequences are welcome in the film as they serve to lighten the more tense scenes with the weirdo next door.

Just after the happy couple has moved in, Chad wakes in the middle of the night to go to the restroom where he catches his neighbor, Mr. Reed (Ken Flott) peeking in the bathroom window. I felt this sequence was very much in the style of Hitchcock, with stylish lighting and an eerie atmosphere–it was quite scary. What I was most impressed with was the fact that Portalla was able to create this scary scene without the use of cheap cinematic tricks like loud music and quick cutting. The initial sequence plays out very quietly in one long scene, catching the viewer completely off-guard.

The next day, Chad goes to talk to Mr. Reed, but the friendly chat quickly disintegrates into an ugly confrontation. So begins the disintegration of a character as well as a relationship. Chad can’t shake the paranoia he feels–like he’s being watched all the time. He notices little things are moved when he comes back to the apartment and he begins to have nightmares. He sleeps less and less. As his entire demeanor changes, it begins to strain his relationship with Ashley. He spends less time with her and more time upstairs with his newfound friends, getting high and drinking. Some revelations are made: while a normally quiet and low-key guy, Chad has a history of being a mean drunk while Ashley is trying to win back Chad’s trust after an incident of infidelity. Chad takes to keeping a huge axe nearby at all times, for protection he claims, but Ashley isn’t quite comfortable with this. As Chad’s paranoia continues to increase, he involves the police, who can’t really find any probable cause, just empty claims. But it certainly enrages Mr. Reed to know that he’s being investigated. More coincidences occur: Chad’s car won’t start; Ashley’s old flame begins calling. This just increases Chad’s anxiety, and he takes to videotaping his windows at all hours of the day and night.

Chad begins to lose his grip on reality. Is his weird neighbor really watching his every move, or is Chad’s drinking becoming more of a problem? Is he having a nervous breakdown, or is his neighbor intentionally targeting him for some unknown reason? While the film has shades of Samuel L. Jackson’s "Lakewood Terrace" and elements of 2007’s underrated "Disturbia," as stated before, the parallels with "The Shining" are the most striking. The cast consists of six primary characters, including Chad and Ashley, Jordan and Dixon, Mr. Reed and the cop that gets involved, Detective Winters. The acting is uniformly solid, especially by Michelle Romano, who shows a remarkable range of emotions as the persecuted Ashley, who is trying to hang onto a relationship that is rapidly falling apart, as well as Ken Flott as Mr. Reed. Flott makes excellent use of his fairly limited screen time and is thoroughly convincing in the first half of the film as the withdrawn and possibly dangerous next-door neighbor. But as Chad begins to lose his grip on reality and the audience becomes less sure of Chad’s version of events, some sympathy is generated for a neighbor who might not be bad at all–just someone who doesn’t understand why he’s being persecuted by this new, young punk. Jimmy Scanlon, who portrays Chad, also delivers a fine performance, understated in the beginning as his character is portrayed as a laid-back, all-around good guy and increasingly hysterical as his world begins to fall apart. Both Stephanie Maheu and Sean Pierce are very entertaining as the dysfunctional couple upstairs that is constantly whacked out on weed and booze, but both also show some dramatic chops in brief scenes towards the end of the film.

Portalla has shown his skills by directing several short films (three of which are included as extras on the DVD), but with this, his first full-length feature, he proves to have a remarkably mature hand at directing this taut thriller. His choice of music is also very good and only serves to enhance the build-up of anxiety throughout the film.

Beside the short films, other extras include a gag reel, trailers and a music video. I thoroughly enjoyed this film and recommend that others try to see it, too. The film was an official selection of the 2010 Magnolia Film Festival and the 2010 Fright Night Film Fest. More information can be found at