The mind is a wonderful creation, and imagination is one of its greatest gifts. But in some cases, the imagination can be torturous. In the case of Nicky, our unnamed protagonist (simply called The Narrator in the credits) has been tortured for many years by his own imagination. Saying goodbye to his baby brother, Nicky, on his wedding day, The Narrator had no idea it would be the last time he would ever see his little brother, for just a few months later Nicky was kidnapped and disappeared without a trace. Since that time, The Narrator has never given up looking for little Nicky, hoping to discover what happened and who was responsible for his death. He has been utterly consumed with his search, even through the course of two marriages, neither of which worked out. And now, with the help of an underground network, The Narrator has discovered who stole his little brother all those years ago. Now it is his turn to put the wheels into motion as he seeks vengeance for his little brother.
As a parent I cannot think of a single thing worse than the death or disappearance of a child. Each time a child is lost and the details of the crime pour forth from the television, my heart breaks for the child and their family. I often wonder what would be worse: knowing the details of what happened after the disappearance of the child, or not knowing anything at all. As horrific as some details may be, not knowing allows the imagination to run wild–certain torture for any parent of a missing child. This is the misery our Narrator goes through as he first has no idea what happened to Nicky, then learns the details of what happened after the kidnapping. Along with this, add the burden of guilt The Narrator feels at not being there to protect his little brother, and it is no wonder his life has been consumed with seeking vengeance for Nicky.
Based upon an original short story by Ken Flott, who also wrote the screenplay and stars as The Narrator, Nicky is a haunting 30-minute short film. As a writer, Flott tackles some tough questions about child exploitation as well as the concept of revenge versus forgiveness. In situations like these, there is never a simple answer. While some would seek vengeance, as does The Narrator, others would argue that forgiveness is the only answer. In this particular instance, the protagonist enacts his revenge which allows him some peace of mind. It is an imperfect solution to a very complicated problem, and one that opens itself to a great deal of analysis from both sides of the discussion. The reality is that people are different and some can forgive more easily than others. By inserting guilt into the equation, Flott makes the argument even more difficult.
Director Dom Portalla also makes some classy choices with the material. Instead of detailing the specifics of the crime that occurred against Nicky, Portalla only allows a brief hint of what might have happened to be exposed as the story unfolds. Portalla avoids the pitfall of using the prurient details, which might be a total turn-off for the audience, instead opting to allow the imagination to fill in those details. Later, as The Narrator captures the kidnappers and exacts his revenge, Portalla again wisely chooses to merely hint at things to come, thus avoiding an Eli Roth Hostel-inspired ending. Once more, the viewer is allowed to fill in the blanks. These two crucial choices elevate the film and keep it from being a simple story of revenge, allowing the audience to address the tough questions being asked–questions no one ever wants to have to answer for real.
Production value is superb, as is the acting. Most actors have only small parts in this film short; Flott is the real star as The Narrator. Flott is excellent as he pours his heart out to his ex-wife about his fears, or as he yet again turns down the pretty office girl’s request for a date, instead opting to continue the search for his brother’s kidnappers.
In the end, Nicky asks many more questions than it answers, and the answers given will only satisfy a portion of the audience. Others will be faced with even more questions. The film is complicated, as is the situation represented in the film, but I found it a sensitive and tasteful production about an ugly truth that happens more often than we want to think about.
Nicky is making the festival circuit, so if you get a chance to see the film, it is recommended that you do so. Bonus: 10% of the fundraising money for the movie was donated to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), proving that these filmmakers put their money where their collective mouths are.
By Keri O’Shea
As feature length movies grow increasingly longer, short films serve a purpose beyond themselves – and that is to remind the film-going world that a moving story can be told in a fraction of the time which many features feel they now need. This is the case with Nicky, the third film by director/writer Dom Portalla, whose own feature The Darkness Within was reviewed by Marc last year. In common with The Darkness Within, Nicky focuses on the psychological rather than the visceral, but the story at its core is no less disturbing. The film explores the enormity of personal tragedy, and the fact that Nicky focuses on the impact which this tragedy has on an individual makes it far more harrowing than even the nastiest horror could hope to express.
Our nameless lead character and narrator (played by Ken Flott) is a man living with the fallout from the disappearance of his little brother – the Nicky of the title – many years before. The unresolved sense of loss has cast a shadow over his life ever since, trapping him in a kind of stasis, unable to move on. He refuses invitations to socialise, two marriages have failed – and all the time, just out of his line of vision or when he’s between sleeping and waking, he sees Nicky, just as he was on the day of his disappearance. It’s clear that our lead has to do something, or something has to happen. His life is half-lived, and he can’t go on in this manner. So, when he finds out about something which could help him to find out what did happen to his brother, he takes the opportunity to try and get the closure he needs…
This is a strong effort from Portalla – who realises that it’s possible to balance tension with pathos when you get your focus right. Key here is the performance of Ken Flott, who developed the idea for the story and also collaborated on the screenplay; Nicky is in many ways a character study of our narrator, and he is kept in very close focus throughout, albeit at times obliquely. Flott’s character often appears in profile, for instance, which gives the impression that his state of mind is hidden and adds to the feeling of distance between him and the other characters he encounters. He’s present, but he’s also absent. The fact that he isn’t named is important here too, especially as someone else’s name hangs so heavily over the story; his own identity has been lost, as he tries to find out what happened to another person. His plight isn’t over-expressed, but yet we get a surprisingly complex character, someone whose inner life you can believe in.
As to if and when the narrator finds the answers he seeks, the pace of reveal here is effective and engaging, and it kept me guessing throughout. Coming in at just under thirty minutes, it’s testament to the film’s writing that it made such good use of the timescale it had, utilising ambitious editing and a script which manages to be sardonic in places, and genuinely moving in others. That said, there were a couple of moments where a brand of surreal, almost black comedy crept in, and I wasn’t so sure that this fitted with the general vibe of the film. Sure, it aided the distancing effect present throughout the film, but it did jar a little with me. It was the simply-expressed emotion which I thought made up the stronger aspect of the script: the line “they unfortunately live forever” summed up so much about what is at the heart of this film – the rawness of grief. In fact, the brief nod to horror which is present in the resolution – however necessary it is to the plot – is where the film is at its weakest, because here it is most easily-linked to horror tropes it exceeds elsewhere. As a psychological study with darkness at its heart however, it is a superb short film.
Here’s a sneak preview of Nicky, which is currently on the festival circuit.
Year Released: 2009
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 90 minutes
Dom Portalla’s award-winning “The Darkness Within” is a psychological-thriller that messes with the mind in that surreptitious way that shocker-addicts only dream about, but very rarely see in contemporary film. With an ending that will trip up even the most seasoned chiller-investigator, “Darkness” has a tightly constructed plot that seems cut from the same MacGuffin-ridden cloth as the one used by Hitchcock—and that’s quite a feat.
In Portalla’s story, freelance videographer Chad Morgan (Jimmy Scanlon) and his fiancé Ashley Sera (Michelle Romano) move into a basement apartment in a working class neighborhood. Chad, a bespectacled, geeky-type really lucks out with the gorgeous and vivacious Ashley, who works as a bartender at a local establishment. Chad and Ashley fix up their home, deal with pesky spiders, and have the usual tiffs newly engaged couples have—until we see that things are not quite as normal as they could be. For one thing, there’s that creepy neighbor named Mr. Reed (Ken Flott), who appears to be a voyeur. Then there’s the trash-talking landlord’s daughter (Stephanie Maheu), who passes the time smoking weed, playing video games, and leading Chad down the path of booze-laden destruction. Of course, Chad is easily led in that direction because as we soon learn, he has a history of alcoholism, which seems to affect his personality in not so nice ways. It turns out his sweet fiancé has a past, too, and is constantly having to explain why her Ex keeps leaving messages on a cell phone that she all too easily forgets at home. Ahhh… life on the home-front—but what’s with Mr. Reed???
Portalla’s film may not be perfect, with those occasional moments of actorial-choppiness and a few irritating pacing-issues that may or may not have roots in post-production, but for the most part, “The Darkness Within” comes as close to Indie-heaven as any new thriller could, and is a film that’s well worth a gander. Believe me, you won’t be disappointed.
Posted on August 2, 2011 in Reviews by
Amy R. Handler
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As a movie reviewer, I can’t tell you how many times I have received “thrillers” that are characterized in their synopses as “Hitchcockian.” I always take a deep breath and then let out a long sigh, as the vast majority of these films don’t bear the slightest resemblance to a Hitchcock film. So it was that I sat down to watch “The Darkness Within” with more than a little reservation, for it is being billed as influenced by not only Hitchcock, but Kubrick as well.
Right off the bat, I must say I was very pleasantly surprised. There actually were some Hitchcockian moments, while the main storyline bears a striking resemblance to Kubricks “The Shining” (in fact, I believe at one point a character from the film actually draws a comparison with Kubrick’s film). Lest you think this is a rip-off, writer-director Dom Portalla manages to take Kubrick’s plot and turn it on its ear to create an inventive and tense little thriller.
Chad (Jimmy Scanlon) and Ashley (Michelle Romano) are excited to be moving to a new town and starting their lives over. Chad has just proposed to Ashley and the happy couple is eager to move into their newly rented apartment and get a fresh start. There are only two problems: the less-than-genial next-door neighbor and the huge spiders that seem to crop up on a regular basis. The spider incidents inject some fabulous humor into the story as Chad chastises Ashley about her embellishment of the spider’s size until Chad walks into the bathroom and shrieks like a girl, running from the room in astonishment. He comes racing back in wearing goggles, rubber gloves and carrying a can of hairspray to kill the thing. I laughed out loud at the entire sequence–it was genuinely funny.
Chad goes in search of the landlord who is supposed to live in the apartment above him only to find that the landlord’s daughter and sometime boyfriend live there. Jordan (Stephanie Maheu) and Dixon (Sean Pierce) spend their days smoking weed, drinking beer, playing video games and insulting each other with biting sarcasm. These sequences are also laugh-out-loud funny as the jokesters gleefully spew vulgarities at each other as well as Chad. These sequences are welcome in the film as they serve to lighten the more tense scenes with the weirdo next door.
Just after the happy couple has moved in, Chad wakes in the middle of the night to go to the restroom where he catches his neighbor, Mr. Reed (Ken Flott) peeking in the bathroom window. I felt this sequence was very much in the style of Hitchcock, with stylish lighting and an eerie atmosphere–it was quite scary. What I was most impressed with was the fact that Portalla was able to create this scary scene without the use of cheap cinematic tricks like loud music and quick cutting. The initial sequence plays out very quietly in one long scene, catching the viewer completely off-guard.
The next day, Chad goes to talk to Mr. Reed, but the friendly chat quickly disintegrates into an ugly confrontation. So begins the disintegration of a character as well as a relationship. Chad can’t shake the paranoia he feels–like he’s being watched all the time. He notices little things are moved when he comes back to the apartment and he begins to have nightmares. He sleeps less and less. As his entire demeanor changes, it begins to strain his relationship with Ashley. He spends less time with her and more time upstairs with his newfound friends, getting high and drinking. Some revelations are made: while a normally quiet and low-key guy, Chad has a history of being a mean drunk while Ashley is trying to win back Chad’s trust after an incident of infidelity. Chad takes to keeping a huge axe nearby at all times, for protection he claims, but Ashley isn’t quite comfortable with this. As Chad’s paranoia continues to increase, he involves the police, who can’t really find any probable cause, just empty claims. But it certainly enrages Mr. Reed to know that he’s being investigated. More coincidences occur: Chad’s car won’t start; Ashley’s old flame begins calling. This just increases Chad’s anxiety, and he takes to videotaping his windows at all hours of the day and night.
Chad begins to lose his grip on reality. Is his weird neighbor really watching his every move, or is Chad’s drinking becoming more of a problem? Is he having a nervous breakdown, or is his neighbor intentionally targeting him for some unknown reason? While the film has shades of Samuel L. Jackson’s “Lakewood Terrace” and elements of 2007′s underrated “Disturbia,” as stated before, the parallels with “The Shining” are the most striking. The cast consists of six primary characters, including Chad and Ashley, Jordan and Dixon, Mr. Reed and the cop that gets involved, Detective Winters. The acting is uniformly solid, especially by Michelle Romano, who shows a remarkable range of emotions as the persecuted Ashley, who is trying to hang onto a relationship that is rapidly falling apart, as well as Ken Flott as Mr. Reed. Flott makes excellent use of his fairly limited screen time and is thoroughly convincing in the first half of the film as the withdrawn and possibly dangerous next-door neighbor. But as Chad begins to lose his grip on reality and the audience becomes less sure of Chad’s version of events, some sympathy is generated for a neighbor who might not be bad at all–just someone who doesn’t understand why he’s being persecuted by this new, young punk. Jimmy Scanlon, who portrays Chad, also delivers a fine performance, understated in the beginning as his character is portrayed as a laid-back, all-around good guy and increasingly hysterical as his world begins to fall apart. Both Stephanie Maheu and Sean Pierce are very entertaining as the dysfunctional couple upstairs that is constantly whacked out on weed and booze, but both also show some dramatic chops in brief scenes towards the end of the film.
Portalla has shown his skills by directing several short films (three of which are included as extras on the DVD), but with this, his first full-length feature, he proves to have a remarkably mature hand at directing this taut thriller. His choice of music is also very good and only serves to enhance the build-up of anxiety throughout the film.
Beside the short films, other extras include a gag reel, trailers and a music video. I thoroughly enjoyed this film and recommend that others try to see it, too. The film was an official selection of the 2010 Magnolia Film Festival and the 2010 Fright Night Film Fest. More information can be found at http://www.doorelevenproductions.com.
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THE DARKNESS WITHIN
2009 – NR – 89 Minutes
D: Dom Portalla
S: Jimmy Scanlon, Michelle Romano, Ken Flott, Stephanie Maheu, Sean Pierce, David Wilson
DVD Courtesy ofDoor Eleven Productions
Extras: Teaser, Trailer, Gag Reel, Music Video, Short Subjects
Chad Morgan and his fiancée Ashley move into a new apartment. It’s small, rather dumpy, but affordable and a place where they can begin a new life together. Or at least they think they can. Within a short time they discover the place has a spider infestation and a strange landlord situation, plus Chad has an unpleasant run-in with a neighbor named Mr. Reed, who just might be a Peeping Tom and possibly worse. But all that is just the tip of the iceberg. When Chad learns what’s really going on and why he actually ended up moving into the apartment, his entire world starts to fall apart. Writer/director Dom Portalla does an admirable job mounting the suspense in this SOV thriller. From a technical standpoint, there are a few problems, with the constant crossing the line during over-the-shoulder shots being the most repetitive one. But perhaps that is a deliberate distraction revealing how off-balanced the world is in the story. And the world here sure isn’t what it’s supposed to be. This is a tale of an unhinged mind and it works on that level. While the acting isn’t great, it’s not from a lack of effort. Jimmy Scanlon does a good job revealing Chad’s arch from a happy man with a seemingly upbeat future ahead to an angry, desperate soul trying to sort out situations that simply cannot be happening. Scanlon and Michelle Romano have decent chemistry as the young couple, Ken Flott is appropriately ambiguous and creepy as Mr. Reed, while Stephanie Maheu and Sean Pierce are engagingly weird as the upstairs landlords. Overall, this is an entertaining thriller with a cool but not necessarily unexpected twist at the end. Recommended. – Craig Hamann
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By: Ted Brown
A young couple has just moved into a new apartment but soon things start to unravel with the appearance of a peeping tom whose voyeuristic escapades may very well tear them apart in Dom Portalla’s 2010 horror masterpiece “The Darkness Within”.
Looking back “The Darkness Within” is easily my favorite indie film of 2010, a low budget horror/thriller that would end up completely blowing me away. One of the best things about this film is the fact it was made on such a tiny budget, without flashy special effects and eye candy to distract their viewing audience; they were forced to write a solid and continuously impressive script like in the old days of filmmaking. With creative editing and a stellar script, Dom Portalla is able to create a very Hitchcock feeling movie that focuses on storytelling and character development of a small cast.
“The Darkness Within” is almost three movies in one, you get romance, comedy and terror all rolled up into a neat little package of pure enjoyment. The relationship between Chad (Jimmy Scanlon) and Ashley (Michelle Romano) is spot on with realism, which is very key when it comes to the success of the way this film plays out over time. Dom Portalla does an incredible job at recreating what it is like as a young couple moving into a small cramped space and the real life problems that arise. This makes their persona’s all the more believable and less like make believe characters created by a writer.
The same goes for the relationship between my two favorite characters in the film, the pot smoking, punk rock landlord Jordan Shelby (Stephanie Maheu) and her stoner friend sometimes roommate Dixon Rampart (Sean Pierce), the comedic relief from the despair created by “The Darkness Within”. I know these two, I grew up with them and hung out with them in high school and still see them time to time, no not the actors but their types these are my people. Videogames and smoke filled rooms, these characters are a very accurate portrayal of an entire generation of slackers and angst ridden self proclaimed revolutionists.
The downward spiral effect this movie produces as you sit back and watch Chad’s picture perfect life turn into a never ending journey to rock bottom always takes me back to the era of classic Hitchcock with a ending that only future fuels the constant vibe that you are watching a movie that one day will be considered a hidden gem and cult classic. Ending wise “The Darkness Within” will leave you speechless and for a few moments as the credits are rolling you will start to look back at certain scenes of the film in the back of your mind and slowly but surely everything will add up and you will realize that you have just experienced story telling at its finest.
Take a break from the mainstream Hollywood train and let this unique and fascinating indie film give you a ride worthy of admission, I highly recommend that “The Darkness Within” becomes a part of your movie collection.
Score: 8 / 10
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