Marina de Van is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today and PopBytes had the privilege of attending the world premiere of her new film Dark Touch at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. It’s our first year officially attending the festival and it seemed rather appropriate for de Van to welcome us into the theaters of New York City with her brand of provocative and disturbing subject matter. Her first film, 2002’s In My Skin, she plays the lead role as a woman who becomes fascinated with a arbitrary deep cut she gets wandering outside at a party. It’s a body horror film where de Van plays both victim and perpetrator. It’s one of those polarizing films where you either love or hate it. In the same vein as David Cronenberg’s psychosexual Crash and Michael Haneke’s relentlessness in Funny Games, In My Skin was a horror film, exposing the psychological trauma hidden underneath the veneer of skin.
Dark Touch is also a genre film. de Van uses the tropes of a haunted house and telekinesis to tell a (horror) story about child abuse. Within the conventions (and restrictions) of typical horror films, de Van manages to express her feelings and emotions about child abuse. The film opens up inside a home in rural Ireland, where the camera takes its time showing us the interior decorating, furniture and appliances in the kitchen. While the opening credits continue, the camera offers us a glimpse outside through the window. It’s a stormy night in Ireland and Niamh (Missy Keating), an eleven-year-old girl, doesn’t seem to mind running through the dark forest to her neighbor’s house in a frantic and psychotic fit. Blood is pouring from out of her mouth and all over her white nightgown. It seems as if she might have bit her own tongue. Her parents come and retrieve their daughter and explain to Nat (Marcella Plunkett) and Lucas (Pádraic Delaney) that Niamh thinks their house is haunted and that the furniture is moving.
The next morning Niamh is forced to drink orange juice and you can see the pain well up in her eyes as the citrus burns her tongue. Nat and Lucas come over to check up on the family and Niamh is told to say hello because she needs to “exercise her tongue.” They won’t let Niamh touch her baby brother and her mother goes on to explain that children don’t know how violent they can be. On one level her parents seem like ordinary parents, but on another you can see them blaming (and punishing) Niamh ever so discreetly. Upon closer look you can tell Niamh is being abused. She has welts, scars and bruises all over her body and her parents try to shrug it off by saying she is a “bit of a daredevil.”
The next night Niamh’s nightmares come true. The haunted house she lives in murders her parents in very graphic and gory ways. They are impaled by modern furniture. A contemporary light fixture kills her father. Niamh takes her baby brother and hides in a wooden cabinet during the entire ordeal. The next morning the police and social workers arrive and they find Niamh in the cabinet with her dead baby brother. It seems as if Niamh might have squeezed him a little too hard, protecting him from the house.
Niamh is placed in the care of her friendly neighbors Nat and Lucas. Without a moment to grieve the death of her baby brother and the death of her parents, everyone thinks it’s best she returns to school as soon as possible. The children taunt her and the school’s staff including a guidance counselor named Tanya (played wonderfully by Charlotte Flyvholm) try and help her. Tanya is the only woman in the film that seems to understand Niamh. Perhaps it’s because she’s trained to work with abused children or Niamh trusts her because she is not yet a mother. Though, Tanya is very pregnant, Niamh doesn’t seem to mind. She is rather mesmerized by her pregnancy. In one scene she puts her ear up to Tanya’s stomach and listens. It was the only physical touch throughout the entire film where Niamh doesn’t cringe.
There is a particular scene where Niamh gets invited to a birthday party by a classmate (from the pact that obviously don’t like her). She doesn’t want to go but Nat makes her go anyway. In the garden all the young girls are playing with baby dolls. At first they are sweet and fragile to their dolls, until Niamh watches them mutilate and beat their fictional offsprings. It terrifies her. She sees the cyclical nature of abuse; these young girls could be future child abusers. Her emotions rile her up and she sets fire to the dolls. Their plastic bodies burning and melting like wax on candles. From this moment on, Niamh sees everyone as a potential child abuser.
In a conversation with a friend after the movie, we came to a not-so-defined conclusion that maybe de Van is suggesting every mother and father will abuse their children in one way or another. She is not suggesting this as an excuse for child abuse but quite the opposite. Perhaps we should stop procreating all together. We are all products of our parents. Verbal or physical abuse could alter our entire life’s trajectory. Neglect, an over-protective mother, etc. All of these things have consequences and become part of our emotional disposition.
When objects begin rattling and moving again in her foster home and at her school, Niamh begins to realize that it wasn’t her house that was haunted it is she who is controlling the objects around her. While the film progresses, Niamh takes control of these supernatural powers. She understands her emotions steer her telekinetic abilities. At this point, Dark Touch does not stray from the conventions of a horror film. An innocent child seeks revenge on all of the abusers in the world. What complicates this dark turn of events is that Niamh is the victim of child abuse and cannot distinguish a good touch from a bad touch. She misreads the welts on a sick child as a sign of abuse, but it’s a sign of disease. She has people in her life she can trust but she reacts irrationally.
Perhaps, my friend and I were right. Maybe de Van is suggesting we’re all potential child abusers and we all should be punished. Either way, Dark Touch is a heavy psychological horror film that is more interested in the conversation about child abuse than the conventional scares, unrealistic plot points, and illogical decisions made by some of the adults in the film. During the Q&A after the film, she explains child abuse is an issue she cares about a lot. She is not attempting to trivialize or “make money” off of such dark subject matter. If anything, Dark Touch is a revenge film. In the same way that Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained were. An imagined fictional revenge. Perhaps de Van is a product of child abuse and she made this film to “murder” her oppressors. Perhaps, she’s using filmmaking as a therapeutic process. She never came out and said she was the victim of child abuse but it was inferred in the last shot of the movie; a closing title card appears on the bottom right of the screen that reads, “For Grany.” When was the last time you watched a horror film that was dedicated to someone’s grandmother?
4.5 OUT OF 5 STARS