Synopsis: A lonely girl finds work caring for an old mansion, but the shadow of suicide and a mysterious locked door drag her into a whirlpool of darkness.
Darling focuses on Lauren Ashley Carter (star of Pod, Jug Face, and The Woman – yeah, I hadn’t heard of them either before I started running out of Netflix options) as a prim, mousy twenty-something ingénue with the meek demeanor of a devout Catholic teenager reduced to making ends meet by working as a bikini barista. She looks like she could have been an understudy for a part-time librarian in a small Midwestern town. Or perhaps a milquetoast college journalism major who ends up in a mutually abusive sadomasochistic relationship with a billionaire pharmaceutical company CEO. She strikes one as timid and submissive is what I guess I’m trying to say.
Anyway, the movie opens with our heroin greeted by the Madame (Sean Young of Blade Runnerfame) and given a curt overview of the mansion. The Madame hints at a sinister past. Well, maybe “hints” isn’t the right word. She shares that her predecessor met her own gruesome demise right there on the property, though she stops short of providing too many grisly details lest it creep out the help before she’s even started.
And that’s the end of Sean Young’s physical appearance in the film. Although she shares top credits with Carter, Young quite literally phoned in the majority of her lines by calling in periodically to check on the meek but increasingly bold (disturbed? disturbing?) Darling.
Meandering the hallways of the estate she comes across a mysterious locked room on the top floor (which the Madame, in one of her limited AT&T-sponsored audio scenes, both reassures Darling is nothing to worry about and gravely warns her to keep locked). Now I don’t know about you, but there’s no way in Hell I’d be wandering around a creepy-ass place like this without some sort of weapon or at least decent lighting. I mean look at that picture to the left. Does that hallway look anything other than sketchy as all get-out? Anyway, she – of course – tries to open the door and although she doesn’t get in she shortly thereafter starts to have violent visions both inside the house and out. Whether they are communications from the house, recollections from her past, or premonitions of something that will happen in the future is not clear. Yet.
The movie is divided into six chapters, whose tongue-in-cheek titles (The Caretaker, Invocation, THRILLS!, etc.) create a sense of giddy anticipation to the overall atmosphere. Almost from the beginning, there are traces of what might be a haunting, a psychotic disorder, or both as Darling hears whispers and experiences increasingly inexplicable paranoia.
There is a vaguely voyeuristic aura to the movie, an eerie ambiance that is amplified by the fact that Darling is filmed in black-and-white. I probably should have mentioned that before, as I’m sure some people might consider the style overly artsy if not outright pretentious. But the absence of color keeps the focus on our heroine and blurs the line between her and the mansion itself.
It also adds to the underlying uneasiness of the atmosphere, which is accomplished as much by what is shown and told to the viewer as what is not. The way Darling describes her previous employment kinda gives you the sense that she may not have actually ever worked for anyone else at all; that maybe that is more of a fantasy of her own. And there’s something decidedly worrisome to me about her evasiveness. Also, although the mansion is clean and well-kept, it’s sketch-as-fuck in how clean and well-kept it is. Seriously. It’s decidedly Spartan with seemingly zero unnecessary items in any given room. It’s as if the set director went through each scene and plucked out anything that could possibly distract from it: “What is that? A poinsettia? What the fuck is a poinsettia doing in this room? It’s not Christmas. The owner isn’t a goddamn gardener! She isn’t, is she? No? Well then take it out! I don’t care if you think it ‘adds character to the room’ you dizzy ingrate. The focus is on Darling and the creepy ass fucking mansion, get it? That’s why the movie is called ‘Darling’ and it’s filmed in black-and-white! ‘Cause it makes it creepier than fuck. Now get that fucking plant out of here!!”
Don’t worry, I’m not going to give you a blow-by-blow replay of the movie. Sufficed to say her discovery of an upside-down cross necklace and some frantically scrawled Latin on the side of a dresser (presumably by the previous caretaker) help push the story further down the spiral.
Though the majority of the story takes place within the residence itself, there is one pivotal scene in which Darling ventures to the outside world and finds herself in an upscale lounge where she is approached by a stereotypical Wall Street yuppie whose lame pickup attempts are rather transparent. Surprisingly, Darling doesn’t seem all that put off. In large part this is because her previously passive disposition has become tainted and quietly dark, her character approaching a mix between Ursa (the hottie villain from Superman 2) and Tiffany from Bride of Chucky.
She reminded me of the kind of vaguely menacing harpy you typically come across on OK Cupid with whom you have an 87% match with despite her having a severed foot fetish, limited command of the English language, and being a man. At least, that’s been my experience with OK Cupid.
Where was I going with this? Oh yeah, the guy she picks up at the lounge. She reluctantly engages in meaningless small talk with him in a way that suggests she learned about human conversation and sexual attraction from an Asperger’s convention. She seems both out of her element and chillingly disconnected as she pinballs through the conversation like a brain injured hamster experimenting with ecstasy. If it were me she was trying to pick up, this presentation would have had me slipping away to the bathroom, climbing out the window, and fleeing the establishment on foot. But the clouded judgment of lust-induced brain freeze and several shots of gin are all it takes to set the hook on this poor sap and lure him back to the house.
Back at the mansion, he tells her about how someone tried to conjure the devil there “They have got to tell you this sort of thing before you move in, right??” and her actions become decidedly less subtle and rather shockingly violent. Perhaps she learned some tricks from her previous tryst with the pharmaceutical CEO (see paragraph 2 above). Oh, and if I may offer a word of advice: Don’t go provoking seemingly docile autistic spinsters who live in reputedly haunted/demon-conjuring mansions if you want to maintain the structural integrity of your anatomy (asshole – serves you right).
Anyway, she enlists his help in a little impromptu redecorating of the bathroom and although Baskin (2016) would have won the Academy Award for Most Hauntingly Creative Use of Trash Bags In A Subtitled Movie Or Horror Film, the bathroom scene in Chapter 4 (“Demon”) warranted at least a nod in that category.
Darling makes smart use of elements that are reminiscent of a number of horror and suspense movies without overtly borrowing from them. There are subtle echoes of Angel Heart, Jacob’s Ladder, and The Shining scattered throughout and the pace of the movie is defined by the discord between the predictable ticking of a grandfather clock and the frenetic convulsions of screeching violins as we are privy to ever more frequent glimpses of Darling’s descent into madness and violence.