The Dark Red (2018)

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The Dark Red begins in Cherokee County, Georgia, with Child Support Officer Katherine Warren (Jill Jane Cements) visiting a trailer home where she discovers a mother lying deceased and beginning to decompose on the bed, and her three-year-old daughter Sybil hiding in a toy box. “You’re safe,” Katherine reassures the confused, scared little girl.

Many years later, the adult Sybil (April Billingsley) is in a secure facility for the mentally ill, receiving therapy sessions from Dr Jackie Deluce (Kelsey Scott) to determine whether she is fit to leave. Given that Sybil has a background of childhood trauma and “a medical history of difficulty distinguishing between what is real and what is imaginary”, the crazy story that she has to tell – about possessing psychic powers, about her ‘dream’-like romance with, impregnation by and marriage to David Hollyfield (co-writer Conal Byrne), and about her baby son being (surgically) removed from her against her will by a conspiratorial family of ‘bad people’ – defies credulity and is not helping her case to be released from the institution. Even the heroine’s name – and the film’s structure built around one-on-one therapy sessions – points to the 1976 telemovie Sybil and its protagonist’s dissociative identity disorder. 

Directed and co-written by Dan Bush (The Signal, 2007; The Vault, 2017), The Dark Red uses the language of genre to express its ideas, and even as its characters expressly frame what is happening in the rationalising terms of paranoid schizophrenia, false memories and infant trauma, it places at its centre Sybil’s absolute conviction that her story is true, so that we as viewers are caught in a deep-seated equivocation. Perhaps the closest analogue is Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), which had a similar focus on maternity, childbirth and demonic cults, and which also came wrapped in narrative ambiguity. This is (more or less) resolved only in the third act, set (a significant) nine months after Sybil has managed to emerge from the confines of the psych ward. Now, in a marvel of the ‘show don’t tell’ approach to filmmaking that contrasts with the constant talking cure of what has preceded, we watch Sybil methodically working through the steps of a well-planned process, but have no idea what is on her mind or where she is going until she gets there – at which point, the film becomes truly disorienting. This is achieved not through spectacular effects, but through the raw power of Bush’s editing.

As its very title suggests, The Dark Red is about blood, both literally and metaphorically: the kind that stops flowing with pregnancy; the kind that pours from wounds; the kind that transmits the legacy of mental illness (or of miraculous genetic mutations); and the kind that confers the advantages or disadvantages of class inheritance. Bush’s film opens in a trailer park, on the economic margins of American society, and ends in an influential family’s ancient mansion, founded on the horrific mistreatment of indigenous locals, built on a gold mine and maintained on the exploitation of outsiders for the enrichment of the resident bloodline. These two locations represent the poles around and between which The Dark Red‘s ideas on class are organised. In many ways this is a vampire film – but the bloodsuckers at its centre, whether real or mere products of Sybil’s distorted worldview, allegorise a system where élites can prey upon the poor, treating them like ‘livestock’ to be used and discarded at will. In her determination to break free from this oppressive system, Sybil must cut the cord and create her own special family unit.

Summary: Dan Bush’s The Dark Red is a film of maternity and madness, vampiric predation and class exploitation

© Anton Bitel