Out of Darkness
2024, R, 88 min. Directed by Andrew Cumming. Starring Safia Oakley-Green, Chuku Modu, Kit Young, Iola Evans, Luna Mwezi, Arno Lüning.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Feb. 9, 2024
In our ever-more-industrialized world, it's important to remember there are primordial places, empty spaces that can still swallow you up without a trace, wildernesses that remind you that the whole world was once so. Andrew Cumming's remarkable stone age survival horror Out of Darkness dwells in such places, a visceral reminder of ancient terrors.
Set 45,000 years ago, in the infancy of the Upper Paleolithic era, Out of Darkness – written by Ruth Greenberg, with a story credited to Greenberg, Oliver Kassman, and director Andrew Cumming – centers on an extended family of early modern humans who have abandoned their migratory tribe in time of famine. They headed west, across the sea to a mythical land of which their leader, Adem (Modu), heard tales as a child. But this isn't the place of plentiful hunting and warm caves he promised. It's bleak and cold, windswept and without any protection, barren and with no prey on which to feast. Worse, there is something beyond the tiny circle of golden light cast by the fire, something as ancient as the trees and inescapable as the cold.
With the remote coastal wilds and pine forests near Gairloch on the western coast of Scotland serving as the ancient north, Out of Darkness tells a superficially simple tale, with the hubristic Adem leading his pregnant mate Ave (Evans), soft-souled brother Geirr (Young), and wide-eyed son Heron (Mwezi), as well as advisor/shaman Odal (Lüning) and stray Beyah (Oakley-Green) deeper into danger. In some ways, it's deeply predictable, following established rhythms of the "and then there were none" survival horror. But by relying on classic beats, the film has the space to explore and re-create a time before written records, when people would become what we would recognize as being like ourselves. Most importantly, it can explore the monstrous fragility of life at the time, when there was nowhere to go, no help from outside, when miles could take days and a broken leg meant almost certain death.
Out of Darkness is often grisly and terrifying, but it's also frighteningly realistic – at least as close as paleolithic researchers can point him. While there are probably a legion of archeologists lining up to point out historical inaccuracies, the spirit and the details combine to create a truly immersive reenactment of paleolithic life, when all you had was what you could carry, and furs were all the kept you from hypothermia. Cumming even had a proto-European language, tola, developed specifically for the film, to re-enforce its ancient nature. Like the untuned tribal wails and horns of the score by Adam Janota Bzowski (Saint Maud), it's just one of the ways through which he designs the hazy outlines of a proto-culture, one so nascent that rites and customs are both obvious (like the significance of the white bone spear that Adem wields) and alien (such as whatever gods or spirits Oled is invoking in his incantations).
And the "proto" is pivotal here. There's a genuine sensation of this being a humanity somewhere between developing moral codes for community and relying on animalistic instincts for survival. Cumming presents a natural world red in tooth and claw, yet the inevitable lessons learned in this moss-covered and frost-blasted wilderness still have modern resonances – about fear, bigotry, superstition, survival. Strip away the furs and replace them with jeans and T-shirts, and Out of Darkness could, in many ways, be set today. But it never feels like Cumming is imposing modernity on history. Instead, in this story of the bloody birth of what we would truly deem humanity, all our modern sins, flaws, and virtues are shown to be truly primordial.