Frightfest 2013 Review: DARK TOURIST Disturbs In All The Right Ways

Why do we slow down to look at car accidents? Why do we put our hands in the moulded handprints of dead celebrities in Hollywood? Why are we obsessed with the lives of serial killers? There are the questions explored in Suri Krishnamma's chilling thriller Dark Tourist. With an incredible performance by Michael Cudlitz (from the TV show Southland), it is not an easy film to watch, but that is likely the intention. It is incredibly disturbing, not least because it asks the audience to question some of their own dark obsessions.

Jim (Cudlitz) is a 'dark tourist', someone who visits homes/places connected with the dead. Though with Jim, is it perhaps a bit more macabre, as he takes his annual holiday from his security guard job to visit sites related to various serial killers. This trip takes him to a dead-end town in California, where arsonist Carl Marznap killed across a county for decades. While not seeming to dismiss Carl's crimes, Jim understands how the cycle of abuse and drama that Carl experienced led him down his path. His seedy motel room is next to a prostitute, and Jim develops a strange obsession. At the local diner, he meets Betsy (Melanie Griffith), with whom he tries to form a bond. But in his travels, he is followed by Carl's ghost (Pruitt Taylor Vince), and Jim's own trauma is coming back to haunt him.

A film such as this lives and dies with its central performance, and luckily Culditz is mesmerising and terrifying. Normally, I dislike voiceover narration, but in this case not only is it necessary, but it works to great effect. Jim's narration acts as a kind of diary; this is a film about understanding the mind of someone who has the capacity to commit terrible acts and struggles with keeping dark thoughts from becoming darker actions. The camera allows us to watch Jim closely, keeping him in almost every shot, as though we were in his place, forcing us to see through his eyes. His hallucination of Carl, then, is both a representation of the dead man and a manifestation of Jim's fears and desire for acknowledgement and understanding of his own pain and fear. Culditz plays Jim as a screw too tightly wound, wound with so much pain that is threatens to tear him apart. Culditz portrays this through the smallest gestures and looks to incredible effect.

Krishnamma cleverly allows a slow build up of tension, allowing quiet moments between Jim and Betsy to give a semblance of normality in between the chaos we hear inside Jim's head. Although the film is about violence, there is very little violence in it; so when it does occur, it is all the more horrible. Again, the film is not trying to justify or condone acts of violence and murder, nor perhaps asking us to have much sympathy for those commit such crimes. It is a presentation of pain and trauma at its most raw and brutal, from someone without the means of expression to deal with it. It is quite a meditative film, but what it meditates on is neither peaceful nor comfortable. It is a stripped-down reflection of a cultural obsession with death and violence, one in which we refuse to recognize how our culture contributes to such violence through wilful ignorance. A truly disturbing and accomplished film.
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