When you’re watching low-budget, independent cinema there often comes a time when you have to make a choice: just how much leeway do I give this film because of the limitations it struggles to work against? With Dom Portalla’s feature debut you get to ask yourself that question on a few occasions but the movie, thankfully, manages to win your favour in each of its three main acts.
The plot sees Chad Morgan (Jimmy Scanlon) and his lady, Ashley (Michelle Romano), moving into a new apartment in a new town. It’s not long before Chad starts to become paranoid about his neighbour, Mr Reed (a fun, slightly creepy turn from Ken Flott), as he starts to sense someone invading his privacy while things start to disintegrate around him.
As mentioned above, The Darkness Within is a movie in three distinct acts. The first act (after a very brief, pre-credits, teaser giving us a glimpse of things heating up, to say the least) is one of domestic bliss only slightly sullied by suspicion and unease. It’s not a bad start but really only livens up during one particularly memorable scene depicting Chad and Ashley debating how to dispose of a horribly big spider. Still, I have seen far worse.
The second act really kicks things into gear and brings in a number of elements that may seem extraneous at first but that certainly end up deserving their place in the movie. We get some more characters (including an all-too-easygoing landlady, wonderfully played by Stephanie Maheu, who tempts Chad into some old bad habits), an escalation of the paranoia and helplessness that Chad feels and a real feeling of things swiftly unravelling towards something that can only end unpleasantly.
The third, and final act, really rewards the viewer and ties everything up nicely. It also does enough to elevate the entire movie to something much more than its basic framework. The execution throughout may not be perfect but the material is solid.
In the acting stakes, I must say that I enjoyed Jimmy Scanlon’s performance but was pretty irritated by Michelle Romano. I’m sure that Romano meant well and did her best but, sadly, it wasn’t good enough and many of her scenes felt as if they had been inserted straight from, let’s face it, the storyline padding a dodgy adult movie. Thankfully, Scanlon, Flott, Maheu and Sean Pierce (playing a friend of Maheu’s character) all do pretty good considering that they’re certainly not full-time, worldly wise thespians.
Made for $3,000 on a mini-DV cam and set in his own apartment, does Dom Portalla make this movie worthy of the time you invest in watching it? Striving to rise above the many obstacles in his path, I’d have to say that he does. It’s the strength of the material that shines through and helps to raise this to a slightly above-average psychological thriller. Personally, I also liked the little nods to other movies in there (I sincerely hope the Halloween-like synth moment when Chad thinks there are more trick or treaters at his door was intentional) and the mix of dark humour in there with the more serious mind-meddling.
Sadly, the audio levels, static nature of the camera (most of the time) and pacing of the majority of the scenes slightly undoes a lot of the good work gained elsewhere. Necessity is the mother of invention and it’s clear that Mr. Portalla had to be very inventive indeed to even get his film made. He deserves some praise for that alone but, for this final judgment, I have to say that the movie would certainly benefit from some major spit and polish work.
DIRECTOR: DOM PORTALLA
STARS: JIMMY SCANLON, MICHELLE ROMANO, STEPHANIE MAHEU, KEN FLOTT, SEAN PIERCE
RUNTIME: 90 MINS APPROX