When the forces of authority trample the individual’s right to freedom, and personal safety, we have injustice. When such abuse is perpetrated against children, there is tragedy. And a wrong that must be righted.
At its heart, this is the story of The Darkness.
I first learned of the horrors heaped upon the children known as the Duplessis Orphans through a series of magazine articles. What struck me most, and drove me to want to make the film, was the fact that these orphaned children were abused by the most potent symbols of societal authority – the Church, the medical establishment, and the State itself.
These powerful institutions chose to victimize the most vulnerable among us – children who had no one to come looking for them. Worse, they did so in the name of Science, wrapping their heinous acts in the cloak of National Security, convinced they were serving the greater good. Which, of course, then justified using whatever means were necessary to later hide the truth.
In his wonderful, heartbreaking book about government-sanctioned torture, A Miracle, A Universe, author Lawrence Weschler points out that a society which has committed atrocities against its own citizens cannot heal without at least acknowledging these crimes. A people cannot move forward without this. The Darkness can, hopefully, be a step toward that kind of acknowledgement for those who survived these horrors, and those who did not.
We live this story through LIZ. A woman who has a loving husband in ROD, a home, an identity…and yet carries with her a gnawing suspicion that all is not right with her life. That there are holes in the fabric of her being, sensed, but not fully understood. A nagging disquiet that all is not as it seems.
Pity Rod, who loves his wife desperately, but can never quite reach her, even in their most intimate moments. She married him, agreed to bear him a child, loves him…but on some level, he knows she is alone. And he can’t change that.
Then a tragedy, the greatest dread of a mother to be, befalls her. She’s thrown headlong into a nightmare of guilt and despair, a black hole of loss she wonders if she’ll ever crawl out of…and then the visions begin. At once frightening, and yet strangely hopeful, she’s drawn into solving this mystery, the key to which will shatter the very foundations of her selfhood.
At the center of the swirling riddle of her past stands DR. EWEN CAMERON. A real figure, perhaps the most acclaimed, and politically connected, psychiatrist of his day, Cameron secretly conducted research for the CIA’s mind control program, MK ULTRA.
A powerful, charismatic, highly dangerous man – Cameron believed, with no slightest shred of self-doubt, that his actions were for the good. Fear the tyrant who believes he acts in your best interest. For how could he possibly feel remorse?
Liz’s search for the truth about her sister, and her past, leads to an unraveling of everything she thought she knew about herself. And, ultimately, to a confrontation with the shadowy figure who stole her childhood. Neither will walk away unscathed.
The true story background of this project can lend a powerful layer of depth and meaning to the film. But for this impact to be fully realized, the film must first stand on its own as a well-crafted, suspenseful thriller. To that end, certain classic genre films will serve as touchstones for the visual style and tone of The Darkness:
Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder, in the overwhelming sense of dread and paranoia that envelops the lead character, the profoundly frightening images he glimpses as he descends into what might be madness, and the transcendent beauty of its ending;
And Kubrick’s The Shining, in its fracturing of time and space, as a long-dead past comes alive around Nicholson’s character in an otherwise empty hotel.
More recent references would include Bayona’s The Orphanage, for its harrowing depiction of a mother’s desperate search for her lost child, the relentless sense of foreboding that builds through the film, and the sheer poetry of its cinematography;
And finally, the American version of The Ring, specifically the creepy, gorgeous, mysterious montage sequence that unspools whenever the video is played. The flashback images Liz sees when she enters her fugue states will echo this imagery.
The influence of all these films will be seen in the visual style, pacing and emotional life of the characters in The Darkness.
Sound design will also play a crucial role. I believe what the mind can conjure, with proper suggestion, is far more terrifying than what can be shown on a screen (eg. Ridley Scott’s first Alien film, which I find far more terrifying than all the later versions, and yet doesn’t fully reveal the creature until the final frame.) Sound plays a huge part in this. With the right sound cue, the horror of what we imagine may be happening to the characters goes far beyond what could possibly be created with even the most effective special effects.
That said, there will be shocking events, and truly frightening visuals, in this film. The audience will jolt at what they glimpse in these moments, and will become even more unnerved as they come to understand that these horrors actually happened.
Music, too, plays a huge part in the emotional impact of a film. Certain songs and artists directly informed the writing of this script, and helped create the emotional landscape of the story: the tragic grandeur of Sigur Ros, the dread and paranoia of Massive Attack, the fatal melancholy of Elliot Smith, the bleak beauty, and simmering anger, of Radiohead. I intend to contact these artists in hopes that, given the subject matter, we may be able to obtain the rights to some of their music, despite our modest budget.
With that in mind, I have approached Nic Harcourt, who is a personal friend, about coming on as Music Supervisor for the film. Nic was formerly the Music Director for KCRW in Santa Monica, one of the most influential public radio stations in the U.S., and is now the Program Director for KCSN at Cal State University Northridge. Nic is a musical tastemaker, and an insightful contributor, having worn the Music Supervisor hat on over 20 films and television shows (in addition to having been largely responsible for breaking Coldplay in the U.S.)
I will also work closely, and early, with our film composer, as I did with Kim Carroll on my short film, The Colony, for Fox SearchLab (our score won a Gold Medal for Excellence at the Park City Film Music Festival, and contributed to Kim’s selection for the Sundance Composers Lab the following year.) A powerful, evocative score, coupled with strong performances and an arresting visual style, will bring the emotional impact of the film all the way home.
A final note:
The Darkness is intended to be a suspenseful, fact-based, psychological thriller. But it contains strong supernatural elements, especially in Act One, as Liz begins seeing the specter that ultimately turns out to be her sister. She comes to realize these visions are actually memories, which initiates her quest to discover the truth of her past. The “ghost story” aspects are therefore a misdirection, a red herring.
The sequences in which Liz sees Rebecca will raise certain questions: Is Rebecca actually a ghost, or just a memory? Was she planning to inhabit the body of Liz’s still-born child? Is that why she has now appeared to guide Liz towards the truth?
The answers are deliberately left ambiguous, so the audience may come to their own conclusions. Is Rebecca a memory, or a ghost? What do you think?
Thank you for considering our project. I intend for The Darkness to be a smart, scary, beautiful and, yes, meaningful film. Because that’s the kind of film I love. Your help in accomplishing that goal is appreciated.
Steven List, Director/Co-Writer
 Cameron’s government-funded experiments on non-consenting adults at McGill later served as the basis of a class action suit against the CIA. And, as so ably chronicled by Naomi Klein in her book, The Shock Doctrine, his findings ultimately became the foundation of the U.S. government’s interrogation methodology. But the use of orphaned children in his “research” has never before been broadly publicized.