Mumblegore is a relatively new term that has blossomed with the low budget, yet character-driven, indie horror films that have been released in the past decade. It was born out of the Mumblecore genre, introduced in 2002 with films such as Funny HA HA (2002) by Andrew Bujalski and Puffy Chair (2005) by the Duplass Brothers.
Mumblegore takes that genre into the realm of horror, with films such as You’re Next (2011), The Sacrament (2013), and V/H/S (2012) as prime examples. Due to lower budgets and almost no studio pressure, these films are much more experimental. A few directors and writers have been credited with the birth and rise of this strange subgenre. Adam Wingard (You’re Next, V/H/S), Joe Swanberg (V/H/S), and Ti West (House of the Devil, The Sacrament) are just a few of the people working to create strange yet terrifying stories that push the boundaries of horror.
I want to expand the definition, which is my goal with this column. I will try to venture outside of those well-known directors and scour the corners of the Internet to expand the idea of Mumblegore.
Most scary domestic spaces are big farmhouses or Victorian estates that sit on massive plots of land and loom over the countryside. Their massive windows and sagging porches are a source of small-town gossip and childhood dares. But Mickey Keating’s (Pod) 2015 film Darling shows us that sometimes, apartments can be haunted places, especially when they contain multiple rooms and are playgrounds of the rich. These apartments are single floor labyrinths that, despite being in cities, contain their own dark secrets.
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“[…] Shot in stark black and white, and choosing a rather anachronistic aesthetic that places Darling in nebulous time, the film’s atmosphere is best described as uncanny.”
The titular Darling (Laura Ashley Carter, Jug Face) is a young woman who has finally found a job: caretaker of an old, yet beautiful, apartment for a rich woman simply referred to as Madame (Sean Young, Blade Runner). Madame quickly references rumors of hauntings but laughs them off as she brandishes a check. Darling, a quiet and austere character, settles into the home, examining its beautiful objects and many rooms. One room, however, is locked. It’s hidden behind a plain white door in a strange hallway. It seems unassuming but Darling becomes obsessed. She quickly begins having disturbing hallucinations and murders a young man. It becomes apparent that something in the apartment has its grip on her mind and is using her trauma for its own unexplained means.
Shot in stark black and white, and choosing a rather anachronistic aesthetic that places Darling in nebulous time, the film’s atmosphere is best described as uncanny. Everything seems too perfect at first. Darling’s hair is perfectly styled. Her dress, reminiscent of Wednesday Addams, lays just right. But that veneer quickly falls apart as the hallucinations begin and the score begins to rise. The film boasts a jarring aural landscape that goes from silence to loud, cacophonous string instruments. It captures Darling’s sudden and confusing hallucinations that usher in panic attacks. Nowhere is safe, and the film’s sound design emphasizes that.
Carter’s performance as Darling strengthens a film that seems to dedicate itself to a particular aesthetic mood rather than a narrative. Her blank stares quickly shift to twisted expressions of fear and anguish, then back to an unreadable face. She fluctuates between two emotional extremes that illustrate the two extremes that Darling occupies. She is continuously being mentally pulled in different directions that render her frozen and confused until she finally snaps. Carter is practically the film’s only character and must pull a lot of emotional weight to keep the viewer engaged. It is a powerhouse performance that displays Carter’s range and ability as an actor.
Carter plays Darling as fragile, a person who has suffered massive trauma and seemingly hasn’t been able to cope with it. It is slowly revealed that Darling was sexually assaulted and she is dealing with PTSD symptoms. However, these symptoms seem to lead to her committing a grisly murder against a stranger she thinks is her abuser. This could work against Darling, making it seem like a narrative that exploits the traumatized woman for another trippy horror movie. However, similar to Oz Perkins’ The Blackcoat’s Daughter, trauma is used to illustrate how the weak are manipulated and taken advantage of for darker causes. Darling is not the problem, but those unknowable forces that prey on the dark thoughts that lurk in the corner of her mind.
“[…] Carter’s performance as Darling strengthens a film that seems to dedicate itself to a particular aesthetic mood rather than a narrative.”
But Darling is not the first to fall victim to what creeps around this apartment. Madame delivers a well-rehearsed spiel about how thankful she is that Darling is watching the place despite the rumors about it. She carefully addresses the suicide of a former caretaker that, of course, was many years ago and was just an unfortunate event. Then she smiles happily and goes on her way. At the film’s end, she is shown given that exact speech to the next caretaker.
Darling is sucked into a cycle of abuse that the rich and evil taking advantage of the desperate and traumatized. She even mutters into the phone to Madame, “I’ll become one of your ghost stories now,” an absolutely harrowing line that emphasizes the cyclical nature of the apartment’s evil. Even more upsetting is Darling’s own self-awareness of her seemingly insignificant role in Madame’s life and her resignation to become another brief story told to spook guests. Darling realizes that perhaps she exists to be manipulated and used by others, human or not.
This may seem quite a lot to glean from a movie that feeds you just enough narrative to keep you engaged but never provides easy or definitive answers. However, because of the barebones narrative, the audience is allowed to bring their own interpretation to the story. We never see what’s behind that door; we only see Darling’s look of absolute horror. What did she see? I say the truth, whatever that means to her. Some may seem Darling as a strange arthouse film with not much to say, and some may see it like me. That is the beauty of mumblegore: it is art that asks the audience to participate and make themselves a part of the story. With one actor, one location, and a good sound designer, Keating creates a thought-provoking horror film that will linger like an irritated splinter; fascinating, painful, and always lurking in the back of your mind.