Judge Gordon Sullivan prefers his chambers brighter, with open windows.
Four Apartments. Seven Residents. One Killer.
It's another indie horror film about a bunch of people dying in a house. Or is it?
Facts of the Case
Justin (Eric Conley) leaves his drug-addicted mother to room with his father as he starts college. When someone who might be mixed up with the occult turns up dead, Justin enlists the aid of his friend Scott (Fred DeReau) and Scott's roommate Rick (Dave Campfield) to put the other apartments in his dad's house under video surveillance. As they get closer to solving the mystery, the killer gets closer to them.
Before we get to what Dark Chamber is, let's go over what it isn't. I know you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but DVDs are a different story. With so many micro-budget films being released, it's hard to find reliable reviews of every new feature that pops up. So, in the absence of critical opinion, denizens of the horror aisle are often left to pick films by their cover. So what does the cover of Dark Chamber tell us? The focus of the cover is a naked woman with an occult symbol carved into her back. Coupled with the "inspired by the true story of the Say You Love Satan killer," this image would lead the prospective viewer to think there will be an abundance of cult business in the film, probably involving lots of flesh carving. Does Dark Chamber have that stuff? Not really. There are some cult members and a little bit of flesh carving, but cult stuff is more like the macguffin for this little Hitchcock homage. Also featured on the cover are the names of three actresses, and while this might indicate that they play a central role, none of them is the protagonist. Instead, the film follows a trio of guys as they investigate a murder by putting people under surveillance. Finally, the Shock-o-Rama logo featured prominently on cover usually indicates copious nudity and gore. Those looking for either will be disappointed by Dark Chamber. Dave Campfield, the director, reveals in his commentary that he's tired of horror movies long on gore/nudity and short on story, so he reversed the ratio, giving us a (mostly) solid plot but little gore and no nudity.
I don't normally mention all these things, but I feel like the front cover and the synopsis on the back will raise viewers' expectations to a point where Dark Chamber can't hope to meet them. Those without the preconceptions generated by the cover will find a solid little horror-thriller movie inside. Campfield really swings for the fences with this one, attempting to give us real characters and a solid plot to counter the usual masked-slasher story. He doesn't always succeed, and it's hard to know whether it's the actors or the script creates some of the rougher narrative patches. Despite these occasional lapses, I found myself interested in the plot and characters instead of going "Oh god, how bad can this get?," which is a first for a Shock-o-Rama release.
My inner Sleepaway Camp fanboy did somersaults when I saw that Angela (Felissa Rose) and Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould) would be reunited in Dark Chamber. Although they don't share screen time, it was great to see these two back in action. The rest of the cast seems taken from open casting calls and acting acquaintances of the director. This spares the audience the horror of friends-turned-actors that plague low-budget filmmaking. The real standout to me was the director as Rick, the perfect mix of smarm and charm that never went over the top. Everyone else does fine with the material, with no one standing out as shockingly bad or surprisingly good. In fact, that about sums up my entire reaction to the film. None of it's shockingly bad (assuming you've seen a few low-budget pictures), but none of it really stuck with me as exceptionally good, either. I admire the film for trying, but it just didn't fire me up like the best low-budget films I've seen.
The film was shot on video and looks it. Considering the transfer isn't anamorphic, the film looks better than its budget would suggest. The audio presentation is also good, especially the reproduction of the score. Strangely, this DVD doesn't feature a scene selection menu, but it does have chapter stops.
The amount of extras appears staggering, but like the cover, appearances can be deceiving. Yes, there's a lot here, but almost none of it is longer than 10 minutes, and less of it is very substantial. The commentary by Dave Campfield is the most engaging extra on this disc. He gives his thoughts on the characters and themes, shares production stories, and clarifies some of the rougher parts of the story. He's interesting and, while he's obviously proud of his film, he never comes off as smug. My only complaint with this commentary is that it is pieced together, so there is a distracting variety of audio quality. The "bonus" commentary features scattered thoughts by the cast and crew, some unused musical cues, and random asides from people connected with the film. It plays like a radio show hosted by Campfield, but never quite gets off the ground.
The documentaries are all fairly short and don't go into much detail. The behind the scenes stuff is interesting, but there is no narrative to give the random glimpses any context. The "Inside the Black Circle" featurette is a wasted opportunity, giving little background on this group who apparently inspired part of this story. However, it's worth watching just to see the wild-eyed picture of the leader, with his Manson pretensions. The included interviews are nice, but they didn't uncover anything particularly interesting about their subjects. The alternate scenes feature cut subplots which would have only bogged down the movie. Bloopers are also included, although they aren't that funny. The less said about the "Addiction" music video, the better. The included Shock-o-Rama trailer vault contains a number of fun trailers for other low budget features. There's also more gore/nudity in the included trailers than in Dark Chamber.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The indie infrastructure is made to support the unusual. Films with difficult themes, loads of gore/nudity, or just plain wacky ideas get shunted off to the land of the low budgets. Aficionados of the indie scene have come to expect a little more from non-Hollywood pictures because with low budgets comes the freedom to indulge in riskier cinematic representations, something the audience for these kinds of films is looking for. The problem with Dark Chamber is that it doesn't take any risks. This film is just not that different from kind of picture you'd see come out of Hollywood. The difference is that Dark Chamber has a lower budget, which means that many of the elements (including acting, lighting, set design) are subpar in comparison to Hollywood's output. To make it worth our while to put up with the drop in quality elsewhere, Dark Chamber really needed to give the audience something special. Sadly, it doesn't.
I'd like to pause here for a moment to discuss the lack of gore and nudity. I don't think that every movie needs either element to be successful, but both are common in low-budget features because they offer that something extra that makes up for the deficiencies elsewhere in the film. I also think it's laudable that Campfield put his story ahead of concerns of gore and nudity, but to have little of the former and none of the latter seems like a slap in the face to the audience. We're talking about a film that features hidden cameras, prostitutes, and a Satanic cult. In this light, the lack of gore/nudity is inexcusable.
Dave Campfield claims that great films can't be made on a micro-budget, only good ones. His first feature is ample proof of his theory. Dark Chamber is a good film, especially for its budget, but it doesn't do anything to stand out. Although I didn't love Dark Chamber, I think Campfield has a lot of potential. Judging by the projects he's announced on his Web site, we have a lot to look forward to from him.
Dark Chamber is found not guilty. Dave Campfield is put on probation until he fulfills his potential as a filmmaker.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shock-O-Rama Cinema
• "The Story Behind Dark Chamber"
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