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Simon Read [Celluloid 07.05.17] United Kingdom thriller

The Dark Mile is a thriller with supernatural overtones, set in the Highlands of Scotland, and while it isn't a complete disaster, containing as it does several moments of genuine tension and suspense, it's pretty clear that the film is a bit of a mess. At some point, probably around the half-hour mark, what starts out as a promising, lo-fi little horror film starts to falter.

The story follows a couple played by Rebecca Calder and Deirdre Mullins. Together they're travelling from London to Scotland, where they plan to rent a boat and relax in the natural beauty of the Scottish countryside - an attempt to repair their fractured relationship following a personal tragedy alluded to in the opening scenes of the film. Their relationship does indeed seem strained, Calder's Louise is distant, emotionally drained, indifferent, while Mullins's Claire seems nervous and overly protective, wearing a smile to hide a grimace.

They arrive at the dock to begin their journey and are given some hassle by a local lad, Kevin, played by Paul Brannigan, who later appears in the village pub, along with a bunch of suitably creepy-looking regulars. Our protagonists have barely sat down before Kevin is bearing down on them, his overly-jocular and sarcastic sense of humour apparently masking some kind of spooky warning. That night, moored alongside the pub, Louise hears noises and investigates, spying figures moving through the surrounding woodland. This is the set-up, and it's also the moment most people would turn the boat around and go visit Edinburgh instead, maybe check out the film festival or something.

As the days slowly pass, Louise and Claire realise that they are being followed. An enormous, ominous black barge, home to a family of weirdos, keeps a steady pace behind them. They meet an elderly couple who offer sinister smiles and home-made preserves. Someone steals Claire's iPad. Someone leaves a creepy, broken doll on their boat. Claustrophobia, paranoia and an altogether understandable sense of dread, do nothing to help improve Louise and Claire's relationship, but soon they'll have bigger things to worry about, especially when the barge and its crew decide to accelerate, so to speak, their motives finally becoming clearer.

The Dark Mile starts off pretty well. Calder and Mullins are well-suited to their roles and make for a believable couple, and the film earns a certain respect in depicting a gay couple without resorting to stereotypes. (Okay, Mullins is perhaps a little butch.) But the film itself, performances aside, simply doesn't seem to know where it's going. The festival guide namechecks Duel and The Wicker Man, which is unfair since those films are regarded as classics of the horror genre, but I guess they need to sell tickets.

The problem lies somewhere between pacing, and the viewer's desire for a more tangible threat, a specific antagonist. Narratively the film feels baggy, as we simply watch our leads live through several days of increasing anxiety and alarm, with strange stuff going on - odd faces appearing at windows, nights spent listening to the rustling forest, menacing text-messages - but without a sense of where to all this is leading. The film's final act, if you can call it that, feels disjointed and underwhelming. It's only really as the film begins to end that we realise that we've been duped. All of this was, essentially, leading nowhere.

The final revelation, while something of a twist, feels very lazy. As in audibly-groaning lazy. I can appreciate what they were going for, but it simply feels contrived, and boy do we have to wait a long time to get there. The film also resorts to using flashes of 'subliminal' images, fuzzy, split-second shots of goat-headed men and other vaguely threatening, quasi-Pagan symbolism, inserted in-between scene transitions. Far from making the film scarier, these irritating inserts actually bring it down significantly, an insult to anyone over the age of twelve. Should director Gary Love choose to remove these as soon as possible, the film would automatically raise itself by one star, so there's some advice.

Like a boat without a compass, The Dark Mile meanders far too long before mooring itself somewhere specific and offering us something to care about. While everyone involved in-front of the camera does good work (including a welcome cameo from the excellent Sheila Hancock), the end result is that we're forced to sit on this barge and wait, observing all the disturbing and disquieting little events, the hints at what's in store for our heroes, but when we finally arrive it's just too late. We don't care anymore. We're just glad the film is finished, the ending coming as both a disappointment and a relief - like arriving back home after a terrible holiday and wishing you'd never bothered going.

Recommended Release: A Dark Song

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