Weird yet wonderful. That’s a saying that I have come across many times. That I have used many times myself too. We’ve all seen those films that are weird yet wonderful, sometimes they are among our very favourites. And why not, it’s in the title of this phrase. But do you know what’s harder to gage, if a film is weird yet wonderful or just plain weird. That is where ‘Doll in the Dark’ comes into it.
‘Doll in the Dark’ (or ‘The Melancholy Fantastic’ according to IMDb, just to confuse you more) is a film by Alejandro Daniel in his directorial debut. So what’s the story? Well that’s a little hard to explain. Not that the film is ‘Inception’ levels of complex, it’s actually simple in structure and pacing, but it’s a very visual and at times unconventional story which everyone will experience and tell in their own way. The basics, a depressed young woman with a tragic past has almost successfully cut herself off from the outside world. Her only company, and her constant torment is a mannequin-sized doll call Mor. Mor, as far as this young woman is concerned, can talk to her and is very domineering in its treatment of her. All starts to change when she meets a young man called Dekken, one who seems to understand her and they both share mutual feelings for. Which, with Mor around, is extremely dangerous for both of them.
Despite the set up and some of the films imagery I wouldn’t call it a horror film, or even a thriller film. It can only be described as a macabre drama. There is plenty of suicide imagery to this film, which I can tell right away is going to get under some people’s skin. I know people who I wouldn’t feel comfortable showing this to with such imagery. Suicidal tendencies and depression playing as major themes of the film throughout. But that is where the very story and character of the film come out. While our characters do have the odd monologue or two to give us indication as to who they are, what we are really told lies deep within the cinematography and mise-en-scene. What lies in the foreground and background is always important and meticulous.
Daniel have obviously taken inspiration from the likes of Guillermo Del Toro, J A Bayona and Alejandro Amenabar. And why not? These three have become powerhouses in the medium of visual storytelling. The opening credits alone made me realise this and, in defence of the film it did get me interested from the get go. Accompanying such imagery is an eerie, almost dreamlike musical accompaniment. In fact the music in this film works the same way as the music in ‘Jaws’ did, in that if it was removed then a huge part of what made this film would be lost completely. And between the music and the sets and costumes we get given a unique and immersive atmosphere which really does make the film feel like we are watching a dream at times. Everything feels odd and off-key, both the good and bad and it only makes sense once you wake and experience the end of the dream or sometime after a little thought.
The cast do a good job as well, most impressive given the bizarre and difficult topics that are being covered within the film. The lead of the film is played by Amy Crowdis, who successfully comes off as a more modern and female spin on Norman Bates. You can tell from the get-go that she means well, despite her obvious deliberate isolation; but you can also tell that there is something disturbed living underneath. Some scenes play on this a little too much, I think, with the stand out moment being her eating a sandwich of mouldy bread. I feel she shines through at her best in the more quite moments, with body actions and facial expressions carrying her character forward and making her compelling for the viewer. Alongside Crowdis we have Robin Taylor (best known as The Penguin in Fox’s ‘Gotham’) as Dukken. Dukken looks like if the character T-Bird from ‘The Crow’ wearing the make-up of, well The Crow; who is himself very supporting and patient with our lead, clearly has feelings for her and provides her with a light in the darkness. I did rather enjoy this character and his philosophy and Taylor played him extremely well, nearly stealing the show. But what I liked most about his character was his unworldly presence. The sense that he gives us as the viewers is that he may be real, or he may not be…adding deeper layers to our lead and in turn making Crowdis’ performance all the more impressive.
‘Doll in the Dark’ does prove that you don’t need a budget to tell a story or make a compelling film. However, it does often fall into the trap of having the audience playing “guess the metaphor”. It’s focus on visual storytelling does often have me wondering what certain images or scenes mean. However, that is a double-edged sword. Because while I am looking for answers to the imagery I was getting distracted by the search for the answers. Some films like ‘The Orphanage’ played this kind of film making to their advantage, leading to a satisfying film that had you so engrossed in what you saw that you forgot that you were looking for the answers all along. ‘Doll in the Dark’ never really got past that barrier, and while the end made some sense I still felt that the film was a little too cryptic in its delivery. The dialogue I found, while poetic, was confused at times and at some others was just inconsequential.
Once ‘Doll in the Dark’ had ended I found it to be less weird yet wonderful, and more strange yet standard. Compelling characters, good performances, visual flare and simple love and ambition towards the project definitely saves the film from what feels like a muddled script and overly cryptic themes. There are improvements to be made for certain, but I was impressed with how this film played out overall. It’s certainly not for everyone, and I’m not entirely sure it was the film for me in the end, but for those who respect the work and dedication that was put into it, as well as its macabre themes and imagery then I would say it’s one to check out at least once.
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