Director: Terrence O’Hara
Screenplay: Brian Herskowitz, Rick Pamplin
Starring: Aarin Teich, Jill Pierce, Jeff Arbaugh, Sara Lee Wade
Year: 1989
Duration: 85 min
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 15

Part of the stable of low budget, quickly produced horror films made by Omega Pictures (founded by cult horror director/producer Nico Mastorakis), Darkroom is a slasher that has rarely seen the light of day since its premiere on VHS back in the late Eighties. Now subject to a new 4K restoration, Darkroom is once more being unleashed onto the home video market, which only begs one question… is this little-seen film a long lost gem ripe for rediscovery or should it have remained consigned to a VHS graveyard?

The plot itself is simple enough. After opening with a brutal double murder, we are introduced to Janet, a pretty twenty-something who has returned to her remote family home after a few years away. Accompanied by her boyfriend Steve (sporting one of the most incredible mullets I have ever seen) a jovial family atmosphere soon turns to terror as members of Janet’s family begin to be killed off one by one. How many will survive before help finally arrives?

This is classic slasher fare then – a group of young twenty-somethings being picked off one by one at a remote farmhouse. Yet intriguingly, Darkroom seems to offer something more, at least initially. With a creepy opening where a killer voyeuristically takes photos of his victims both before and after their murders and with hints dropped later on of mysterious fires and family tragedy, Darkroom appears to be combining elements of Italian giallo within a more conventional slasher set-up. Frustratingly, however, this potential genre hybrid never develops into anything more substantial, devolving, as time goes on, into a cliched and predictable exercise in tired genre tropes that fails to offer anything new or unique.

Yet, typically for slasher films, shortcomings in plot can be forgiven if there are enough inventive kills combined with a tense and menacing atmosphere. Unfortunately, Darkroom fails to achieve either. For an Eighties slasher, it is surprisingly bloodless and restrained. Many of the murders take place either outside the frame or off-camera completely, with director Terrance O’Hara choosing instead to show us the victims afterwards. Even then, a conservative amount of make-up and practical effects are applied, making for unimaginative, anti-climatic killings. The restraint that runs through the film is perhaps best exemplified near the beginning, where a murder with an axe not only takes place off-screen, but is illustrated not by blood splattering the walls but chocolate cake mix! There is one brutal exception, however, where O’Hara doesn’t hold back… when someone is stabbed about halfway through the film, he deploys viscerally effective close-ups of the knife twisting and turning, boldly holding onto the viciousness of the moment to achieve a feeling of shock and surprise. You only wish the same degree of boldness had been applied more liberally throughout.

In atmosphere, too, Darkroom fails to achieve anything substantial or memorable. Set in a location that never feels quite as remote as the script demands, frequently hampered by some wooden acting (one character reacts to the death of a family member with so little emotion that you begin to suspect they have overdosed on Xanax) and building up to a climax that is so blandly filmed it completely eviscerates any sense of tension or threat, it frustratingly fails to deliver on the promise of its set-up. Even the revelation of the killer is predictable and their motivation, when finally revealed, aims for depth but achieves only banality.

Yet somehow, despite these flaws, Darkroom just about manages to hold together. Despite being shot in a little under two weeks, the film is effectively (if rather unimaginatively) constructed, with production values that belie its meagre budget and incredibly tight schedule. The opening credits alone (directed, I believe, by Nico Mastorakis himself) deserve a special mention for their inventiveness while Terrance O’Hara displays a Corman-like efficiency in delivering a slick, professional production with little time and money (skills he no doubt put to great use in a subsequently prolific and successful television career). While failing to ever really push the boat out, he nevertheless ensures that Darkroom is an erratically fun watch whose numerous flaws could have been greatly magnified by another director without his level of technical competency.

Nevertheless, there is no hiding the fact that Darkroom is more of a failure than a success. Despite the opportunity to explore an intriguing combination of giallo and traditional American slasher, it refuses to exploit either genre with anything approaching originality or innovation, which is a shame considering the sparks of potential that occasionally drift into focus, only to fade, never allowing the film to develop into the cult genre gem it could have been.

88 Films brings Darkroom to Blu Ray with an excellent 4K restoration. For those who have only seen the film before on a grainy VHS, this will come as a complete revelation. Colours pop, darker scenes have been excellently encoded with no ugly compression artefacts and the amount of detail in some close ups (such as the many shots of hands and cameras) is simply stunning.

You are given the choice of a re-mixed 5.1 DTS surround soundtrack which is efficient enough (although lacking a bit of clarity and punch in some early conversational sections) as well as a remastered DTS stereo track.

Blu Ray Special Features

– 4K Transfer from Original 35mm Camera Negative
– “Developing Fear” – An Interview with Actor Aarin Teich
– “Exposing the Truth” – An Interview with Actor Jeff Arbaugh
– Original Trailer
– Stills Gallery
– Reversible sleeve

The main extras are Developing Fear and Exposing the Truth, two short interviews with Arrin Teich and Jeff Arbaugh, the film’s male leads. They reminisce about their early careers and provide a few anecdotes and memories from the making of the film, which, while having to work very long days, certainly seems to have been fun for all the young actors involved.

The package is rounded out by a trailer (don’t watch if you haven’t seen the film before, as it happily reveals the identity of the killer!) and stills gallery. The pressing I received is a limited edition of 3000 which comes with a slipcase and four art cards.

Ultimately less of a slasher film and more of a thriller (and a not very good one at that) Darkroom doesn’t have much to recommend it I’m afraid. Yet its new 4K restoration means that fans of the film or those interested in collecting rarer, lesser seen genre efforts shouldn’t hesitate in picking this up – it is doubtful that Darkroom will have a better home video presentation than what 88 Films have managed to deliver here.

Darkroom - 88 Films
2.5Overall Score
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