DARK VISION: ENGLISH GHOST-HUNTERS IN A FOLLY
by Thomas M. Sipos, managing editor [June 20, 2014]
[HollywoodInvestigator.com] Dark Vision is the latest "ghost-hunters on a realty TV show" horror film. It's a subgenre wherein, typically, a group of ghost-hunters are doing a documentary or reality TV show, during which they encounter an actual haunting, with dire results.
Recent entries include Haunted Changi (which claims to be the first), The Feed, Spirit Stalkers (my personal favorite), Evidence of a Haunting and 7 Nights of Darkness (two of the worst), and England's The Legend of the 5ive.
Dark Vision most closely resembles Legend of the 5ive. This may partially be because, to my American ears, English ghost-hunters all sound alike. But other similarities exist. Both films feature an egotistical, flamboyant host, leading a younger team into rural backwaters, where they are attacked by a long-dead servant of Satan.
In Dark Vision the ghost-hunters investigate a plague doctor's castle (a theme that evokes The Sickhouse, another English horror film about plague doctors), but then discover that the doctor was actually a Satanic child murderer -- who had conjured up something even worse than himself...
"We knew it could seem like we were making just another paranormal investigation TV show gone wrong scenario," said writer/director Darren Flaxstone to the Hollywood Investigator, "but this gave us an ideal platform to lull the audience into a false sense of security before turning the subgenre on its head. The first few minutes start as you would expect. A group of people in a spooky location for the night. But then our 'modern gothic mash-up' takes a far more idiosyncratic approach -- actual color and steady photography, rather than green-tinged wobble cam; suspense and intrigue, rather than in-your-face torture porn; and a distinct vein of dark Brit humor."
Well, Dark Vision does have a few zingers, but this is not a Monty Python style, laugh a minute Britcom. It's true the film eschews green nightvision cameras (a technique that enhanced The Feed with some creepy atmosphere). Even so, I don't see that Dark Vision sets the subgenre on its head. Actually, the film follows the subgenre's template pretty closely. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Mark Whatmore's cinematography is admirably sharp and well-lit. Not the harsh, flat lighting of some other micro-budget films, Dark Vision's lighting is nuanced and atmospheric, creating soft skin tones and well-placed shadows. Flaxstone says his film (which he co-wrote with star, Bernie Hodges), is partially inspired by Britain's old Hammer films, and Whatmore does effectively replicate Hammer's lush colors.
The story is set inside and beneath Baylock's Folly. I thought I was looking at a castle or a tower, but Dark Vision taught me a new word. Folly. I learned from Google that one of the definitions of folly is "a costly ornamental building with no practical purpose, especially a tower or mock-Gothic ruin built in a large garden or park."
"The folly is a real, few hundred-years-old hunting folly on the Berkeley Estate in Gloucestershire," said Flaxstone. "We got permission to use it for filming, including the interiors, which are the actual interior of the folly. Luckily, the decor inside the folly was so over-the-top that it already looked as if it had been set dressed for a postmodern gothic horror film. The oak tree was next to the folly, and is mentioned as a sapling in The Doomesday Book."
In Dark Vision a demonic ghost stalks the caves under the folly, but the real folly sits atop no caves. So Flaxstone went elsewhere for caves. "Redcliffe Caves are old sandstone mines in the center of Bristol, our home town, where raw materials for glass-making were mined in the 1700s. There are still engravings in the walls to ward off witchcraft from this time."
Dark Vision also benefits from professional sound recording. Voices are always crisp whatever the location -- windy outdoors, the sitting room, the caves (whose echoes enhance the atmosphere, without hindering our ability to understand the actors).
The acting is decent, if at times a bit affectatious. Actors playing to the jokes, I suppose. Co-writer Hodges is effective as the vain, smarmy, and flamboyant ghost-hunter TV host, Spencer Knights. His character evokes Greg Tanner as the similarly vain, etc., ghost-hunter TV host in The Legend of the 5ive. It seems most ghost-hunter TV hosts resemble Ted Baxter, to some degree or other.
The film's weakest element is the writing. A slow pace hobbles Dark Vision. There is so much exposition, of both the folly and the characters, that we're halfway into the film before the scares really start happening. Until then it's mostly the characters' petty bickering, which isn't interesting or funny enough to hold our attention for 45 minutes. Flaxstone says that he and Hodges wanted to avoid the subgenre's typically "non-appealing characters," but Dark Vision's characters aren't any more or less appealing than those in most other ghost-hunter horror films.
Like many micro-budgeted films, Dark Vision is self-funded. "Our budget was £35-40,000, with deferred payments boosting the budget to around £75,000," says Flaxstone. "The money was raised between the three main producers -- i.e., us. [Flaxstone, Hodges, and Chris Broughton.] We're still working to pay it off.
"The film was shot in 12 days on the Red EPIC camera, and edited on Final Cut Pro 7 from proxy files. We did a picture conform back to the 4k RED files after editing had locked. Shooting 4k gave us the opportunity to enlarge certain shots a huge amount, which got us far more sequence coverage out of our modest shooting schedule. We also had a day of pickup filming after we got past the first rough cut, which was invaluable.
"We've had a lot of interest for distribution. The bottom in the DVD market has fallen through, so we're looking at VOD platforms. We should hopefully have the film released by October or November of this year.
"My advice to filmmakers on a limited schedule/budget is to get as much time rehearsing with your actors before the shoot as possible. This way you can hit the ground running on location. Having a good sense of the editing process helps when faced with a low budget. I've been a professional editor for the past 20 years. It has saved much time and money on four plus low-budget features.
"Don't skimp on sound. I've seen many a potentially good low-budget project ruined by badly recorded location sound. Post-syncing and ADR is expensive, and can make actors look like a badly-dubbed Japanese movie.
"Kick off your marketing/social media campaign early, even before you've shot a frame. It can take a while to build interest. Don't scrimp on your preparation time before production. The more prepared you are, the smoother the shoot will be."
Details about Dark Vision are at the film's website.