There were so many varying opinions at the screening of Dark Touch I went to. Flixist’s pal Steve over at Unseen Films is going to compile some of the reviews from critics who talked to him about Dark Touch because they were so all over the map, and this fascinated him.
For me, Marina de Van’s Dark Touch felt like a throwback to the semi-obscure 70s and 80s horror movies I enjoyed watching on VHS in high school. Many of them were Italian and released by Anchor Bay in plastic clamshell cases; a lot of the plots were loose on logic, high on expressive style, pieced together through set pieces; movies less like stories and more like fever dreams.
This vibe sort of makes sense for Dark Touch. The catalyst for all the mayhem is the lifelong physical and sexual abuse of an 11-year-old girl named Neve (Marie Missy Keating). Most of the abuse thankfully takes place off camera, but we understand its severity from Keating’s withdrawn performance and some choice reveals during the film, all of it hurtling the story toward nihilistic madness.
[This review originally ran as part of our 2013 Tribeca Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical and VOD release of the film.]
Director: Marina de Van
Release Date: September 27, 2013 (limited, VOD)
The film opens with what seems like a little nod to Suspiria. A hysterical Neve rushes through the woods at night in the rain as if she’s being pursued by something or someone. She winds up at a neighbor’s house screaming unintelligibly. Blood pours out from her mouth because her tongue’s been cut. When she’s well again and able to speak, she insists that she was attacked by her own home, which is an absurd idea and the sort of thing that adults would write off as a nightmare or the work of an overactive imagination. Here, it’s sort of the truth.
The mayhem continues in Neve’s house when she’s returned to her parents. The place does wind up going mad when she’s there. Think Mary Poppins on meth: flurries of shattering glass, dressers skidding across the floor at unstoppable speeds, sharp things flying at mom and dad. In the aftermath of the freakout, Neve is alive but orphaned, the sole survivor of what authorities think is a home invasion of some kind. Nat (Marcella Plunkett) and Lucas (Padraic Delaney), the hapless neighbors she ran to at the beginning, volunteer to look after her. At that point there was knowing laughter from the audience. These sorts of well-meaning gestures in these sorts of films can never end well. A similar show of goodwill later in the film also led to louder knowing laughs.
Nat and Lucas are as kind as they can be, though they have their own faults as parents. Still, both do their best to be accommodating even though they’re ill-equipped to deal with a girl so psychologically scarred. Every attempt to reach out to her she interprets as an intent to harm. When Nat tries to just touch Neve’s hair or her shoulder, Neve shrinks away like a frightened cat. When she’s touched in a certain way in her bedroom, Neve goes into a zombified state and begins to remove her panties and undress. When she see dolls being manhandled and mutilated, inside of Neve there’s an uncontrollable fear. It’s the little suggestions like these that hint at just how awful her abuse and her baby brother’s abuse were when she was living with her parents.
Dark Touch plays with a familiar trope of horror films: young girls developing certain abilities when they come of age. Think Carrie and Firestarter, or specious reports about adolescent girls, telekinesis, and poltergeists. By constructing one of those kinds of stories using a framework of abuse and victimization, it feels like de Van is making a larger comment on how the abused deal with the aftermath of their abuse. Perhaps rehabilitation is not always possible for some, and even those who are helped through counseling and therapy can never quite be relieved of the tragedies in their past.
The movie made me think a lot about triggers and what the mere mention of certain events means to the victims of abuse, rape, and other traumas. Dark Touch is all about triggers, how they manifest themselves, and how precarious life can be for victims of such horrible events. The saddest thing is that while Neve is now free from her abusers, she’s still not free from their influence or their power. Any perceived potential for abuse causes the anxiety associated with the trauma, and because Neve’s life has been defined by constant victimization, everything is a potential trigger.
It doesn’t even need to be adult cruelty that she witnesses. Kids can be so cruel as well, especially to people who are different. They’ll tease, they’ll mock, they’ll destroy them socially just because they can and it’s what the group is doing. Children often lack a basic concept of empathy, which I’m convinced is one sign of maturity. To be blunt, kids are absolute shits sometimes and they never fail to demonstrate their potential for ruthlessness and villainy; and there’s no better target for their malice than weaker children, outcasts, and the ones that are labeled freaks.
Neve has no one who can really understand her save for a pregnant school counselor, a teacher, and two other victims of abuse from her class. These two kids are barely confidants for Neve, and they’re not really allies in the cruel world either. In fact, they seem so fargone that they look like the walking dead. As for the counselor and the teacher, they may be the only two people in the world that Neve can forge a connection with, but she can’t trust them entirely. Again, the moment she lets her guard down could be the moment that she’s abused again.
The only response for a hopeless life like this is rage, and Dark Touch is fundamentally a movie about an uncontrollable rage at the world, merging Neve’s anger at her parents with a sense of moral outrage at the victimization of children. Whatever has been awakened in Neve is only getting stronger, and as she’s understanding what she’s become, it gives her a chance to become an abuser herself. Finally, power. Adults who’ve never experienced what she’s experienced can never know the humiliation and horror, but maybe they can just get a taste of how bad it really is.
De Van has channeled those clamshell horror films I loved so much in high school, but she’s infused the style of those movies with absolute nihilism. Neve’s been condemned to lifelong misery because it’s all she knows, which means everyone she’s met in life and the whole town could be doomed to an even greater misery. That’s the bleak, terrifying undercurrent of Dark Touch: this is what the cycle of abuse is like, unending and apocalyptic.