The Scottish Highlands are home to some of the most beautiful scenery on the British Isles, offering a sense of tranquil seclusion that feels a million miles away from the crowded cities and towns elsewhere. Needless to say, horror directors have been capitalising on this secluded aspect for decades – from the secretive cult in The Wicker Man, to the fantastical nightmares of Dog Soldiers, British horror films are elevated when utilising the mysterious backdrops in Scotland that are hidden away in plain sight.
Director Gary Love has similarly ventured north of the border for his latest film, The Dark Mile, an atmospheric psychological thriller where an idyllic holiday turns in to an atmospheric nightmare in no time at all. Recovering from previous traumas, mismatched couple Louise (Rebecca Calder) and Claire (Deirdre Mullins) are travelling up to the Scottish highlands for a quiet getaway from their hectic lives in London. Louise is quiet and somewhat distant, whereas Claire is comparatively loud, face constantly buried in her laptop or phone, and acting provocatively to antagonise those around her when not. The pair had planned a boat trip in the Highlands, but at the quaint village where they set sail, nothing seems quite right – and it isn’t just the undercurrent of confused homophobia among the locals. Soon, belongings are going missing, strange wailing sounds can be heard in the nearby woods, and the pair find out that in the Highlands, no one can hear you scream.
Even when the film isn’t scary, there is an undercurrent of menace due to the eery atmosphere Gary Love has created. Upon arrival at the village, Louise and Claire visit a local pub – a hypnotically menacing scene that is reminiscent of the visit to the secluded Yorkshire pub in An American Werewolf in London, but with an added undercurrent of fear replacing an illusions to comedy. A quaint folk soundtrack reverberates in the background, as the cultural differences between these two city dwellers and the local populace are underlined. Even if the film weren’t to follow the route of a conventional horror narrative from this moment, this sequence would still feel alarming due to the sheer unspoken distrust that hovers ever present in the air.
From this moment onwards, the scares become effective because of how successful Love is at drawing these characters as flawed and highly believable. For Claire, the thought of living without Wi-Fi for a few days is the most horrifying thought of all – a recurring gag that pays off when she’s further shut off from the outside world due to a lack of phone signal (she’s been relegated to using a “drug dealer” flip phone, to add insult to injury), as well as facing her fears when she sees her iPad stolen by local residents, which leads the pair in to a sinister, cultish conspiracy. The surreal horrors feel tangible as they play on realistic inconveniences in real life- and in this case, also illustrate the emotional wedge driving Louise and Claire apart, as Claire only receives sexual texts from her ex-husband’s phone with the paltry phone reception she can get while in the wilderness.
Despite the low budget of the production, the film looks utterly stunning throughout. No matter whether capturing the sweeping Scottish vistas, or the claustrophobic interiors of the rented boats, John Pardue’s cinematography manages to convey an effective sense of menace. In certain sequences, handheld cinematography is also used brilliantly to give the sense that we are watching from the perspective of some unseen menace, planting the seeds of paranoia that start sprouting later on in the film. The film doesn’t rely on cheap shock tactics to generate scares or tension- and for the most part, the fear remains an undercurrent that you half expect to be explained a hallucinatory haze upon entering a long forgotten location, divorced from the wider world.
The Dark Mile works on two levels – it’s a keenly observed drama about the disintegration of a relationship under the worst possible circumstances, with the demons of the past returning at a highly inopportune moment, as well as an effective psychological thriller that utilises its picturesque setting really well. Even without the descent in to cult-territory, this would still be an effectively and disturbingly bleak effort for its portrayal of a failing relationship – but with the gothically tinged elements in place, The Dark Mile becomes a truly effective piece of atmospheric horror.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Gary Love