From The Descent to Caspar David Friedrich: the influences on Stone Age horror Out of Darkness

An unseen peril is stalking the Scottish Highlands 45,000 years ago in the new survival horror film Out of Darkness. Director Andrew Cumming takes us through his mood board.

Out of Darkness (2022)Signature Entertainment
  • Spoiler warning: This interview gives away details of the plot

Directing your first feature throws up all sorts of challenges, but especially when there’s a pandemic on. With strict film production guidelines in place, the autumn of 2020 found Andrew Cumming and his cast and crew filming out in the damp and mud of the Scottish Highlands. Those isolated landscapes provide the setting for a survival adventure horror set many millennia past, as a ragtag band of early humans are stalked by a mysterious peril as they wander in search of safer land.

To make things more challenging still, Out of Darkness (formerly known as The Origin) uses a prehistoric language which was made up by screenwriter Ruth Greenberg and is subtitled in English. It’s all part of the Scottish director’s efforts to get away from the loincloth clichés of depicting Stone Age man on film. “Even in Quest for Fire (1981),” Cumming says, “there’s a simian aspect to the performances. I wanted to avoid that because it feels that you’re looking at something rather than sympathising or identifying with the characters.”

Instead, his vision of Palaeolithic life was informed by a range of books, sculptures, paintings and archaeological discoveries, as he tells me when we met on Zoom to talk through his influences. “I went back into the mood boards that we used to pitch the film, just to refresh my memory. It was like looking at an old family album of lots of disturbing imagery.”

The Inheritors by William Golding

The Inheritors by William Golding

The spark point for me was William Golding’s novel The Inheritors, which was his follow-up to Lord of the Flies. It’s about a tribe of Neanderthals who are returning to their summer hunting ground after a harsh winter, and they encounter the strange sort of gangly species of much taller bipeds who are obviously homo sapiens, us. The whole story is told from the Neanderthals’ point of view, and it has this deliciously cynical ending. I don’t want to spoil it, because people should read the book. It really expanded my mind. I remember when I closed the book, I had this epiphany about us as a species and what we’re capable of and what we do to things that we don’t understand or things that we perceive as a threat.

That was the spark for wanting to do something in that time period, in that sandbox. I didn’t think it would be my debut, but that was the genesis of an idea that I took to producer Oliver Kassman, and said, “I’m interested in this time period.” Lo and behold he was as well, so that was when we started to knock our heads together and work out a story to tell in that world.

I really love how Golding got into the heads of these things. ‘Things’ is unfair, because the research that’s been done in the last two decades and the things that have been discovered in dig sites across Europe suggests that Neanderthals were our equals in so many ways and, in other ways, so much superior to us in terms of how long they survived in Europe before we came along.

Alien (1979)

Director: Ridley Scott

Alien (1979)

Alien by Ridley Scott is really important to me, both when I saw it as a teenager and then in terms of the shared enthusiasm myself and Oliver and screenwriter Ruth Greenberg have for it. It’s not an old film; everybody knows that scene around the dinner table, but it had a big effect on me as a young teen.

What Ridley Scott did with a paper thin concept. You’re watching someone taking all the tools of the trades, whether that’s performance, lighting, music, script. As I started to get into filmmaking and understanding the mechanics of it and what it entailed, it was the first time I was conscious of all these different components coming together to build a believable world, take you on a journey, make you feel these extreme emotions.

That’s without even touching on Ripley and how important she is in terms of feminist cinema and how ahead of its time that was, and the Alien design by H.R. Giger. It’s a very successful film, and it crystallised for me that I wanted to make films that had a commercial appeal – they have a clear elevator pitch and concept but hopefully are still intelligent and immersive and well-made.

Structurally we follow Alien quite a bit, because it’s such an effective structure of having this patriarchal world where the patriarch is sucked out of that world – now there’s a vacuum. Who fills that vacuum, and how does that person become the one?

In Out of Darkness the central character is Beyah, who becomes the final girl. Similar to Alien and with Ripley, from the Xenomorph’s point of view, Ripley’s a genocidal maniac. These guys are just chilling on their home planet, and then along comes this woman with this vendetta. That goes back to The Inheritors: the idea that one person’s hero is another person’s destroyer.

The Witch (2015)

Director: Robert Eggers

The Witch (2015)

When Oliver and I first sat down to work on the outline, we thought, okay, a prehistoric horror movie – how do you pitch that to financiers? Then this little film called The Witch came out and I got really excited just by the trailer. The Witch made it much easier for us to go in and say, “You can marry up this esoteric concept. This maybe isn’t going to be for everybody, but you can marry up this time period with these genre trappings and create something that feels fresh and new.”

With The Witch, a lot of it’s suggested. It’s not an out-and-out monster movie, it’s more about the degradation and the breakdown of this family unit. It just blew the doors off for us in terms of being able to pitch this thing and make it feel like a sellable movie. With a monster movie, at some point you’re going to have to show the monster, but the thing with Out of Darkness is it’s a monster movie for the first two thirds, and then it becomes this other thing that we wanted to say about humanity and what we’re capable of.

I’ve seen some reviews of the film mention The Witch, and I think that’s slightly misleading, not just because we’re a few thousand years apart in time periods, but I think it makes people expect that kind of slow burn, and our film starts like that, but then eventually chaos reigns and people give in to their darker impulses. It’s all at a much more heightened, high-octane level.

The Descent (2005)

Director: Neil Marshall

The Descent (2005)

We were looking at a lot of low-budget British horrors to see how you do it, and The Descent was extremely good at that: the claustrophobia of the locations and that very visceral feeling you have that they are there and they’re not in a studio. Again, things are hinted at up until a point, and then eventually you see the monsters and all hell breaks loose. That’s an effective way to mine the tension and then evolve that tension into survival mode. We straddle quite a few genres in Out of Darkness where it’s a survival movie and it’s a horror movie.

Caspar David Friedrich

A lot of Caspar David Friedrich imagery found its way into the film. He’s so good at capturing characters in these huge landscapes. There’s a mystery and a sense of the epic and a sense of the primeval; that it’s human beings in these ancient unknowable worlds, where, if you go back 40,000 years, our ancestors probably thought if we turn that corner and go over that hill it could be the edge of the earth. There’s no concept of what the world is beyond what they can hunt and what they can see with their own eyes.

Seashore in the Fog by Caspar David Friedrich (c.1807)

The Friedrich painting I’m looking at right now is called Seashore in the Fog. There’s a small boat coming out of the mist on to a piece of land. One of the things we spoke about with the film was there’s this small group that have splintered off from a larger group and they’re trying to find the promised land, they’re trying to find a place that they can call their own, so they’re effectively refugees. We felt that was a strong image. We were writing at the time when Brexit was a hot topic and Trump 1.0 was on the horizon – there was a lot of talk about borders and walls and where people belong and where they don’t belong and fear of the other. All these things were encapsulated in that image, and we found it a really evocative way to sell to people with this lookbook what we’re driving at.

Throne of Blood (1957)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Throne of Blood (1957)

The music from Throne of Blood, that really grating flute, was really useful, because there’s a queasiness and something really disturbing to me about it. Even in some of the costume choices and how Kurosawa dressed his characters. The thing is you could steal from any Kurosawa movie, and particularly how he uses the elements, whether it’s Ikiru (1952) in the snow or it’s Ran (1985) in that huge firestorm that’s happening over the castle; certainly the placement of actors in the frame in his samurai films when you’re dealing with an ensemble cast. In Sanjuro (1962), I think he’s got 11 or 12, we only had six – but how he stacks people in the frame and how he uses the camera to dance around these characters and create clear storytelling pictorially is always inspiring.

The Inuit: Life as It Was by Richard Harrington

The Inuit: Life as It Was by Richard Harrington

When you’re trying to dress people from 40,000 years ago, what I wanted to avoid was shaggy hair, misfitting furs that have just been put on – they’ve cut a hole in the top and just put it over. There’s evidence at dig sites – we’ve found sewing needles made of bone, so these people could tailor their clothes. That was a jump-off point for me to say, “How can we reimagine and get past Raquel Welch in a fur bikini? How do we show that these people were intelligent and cultured and they put great thought into what they wore and how they presented themselves?”

We’ve released a trailer for the film, and there are a few people commenting online saying, “But they look too tailored.” It’s interesting how people still hold this belief that 40,000 years ago we were just dragging our knuckles and saying ooga booga. The truth is we don’t know. That sewing needle gave us licence.

Richard Harrington was a journalist and photographer who went and studied the Inuit for several years. The book is full of great images, amazing silhouettes, but also details of the costumes these people wore and how they used the natural world to clothe themselves, to tailor their clothing. In one image, they’d effectively made a Gore-Tex jacket out of walrus intestines. I desperately wanted to have something like that in the film, but we just couldn’t get the material right. It didn’t look intestiney enough.

Sculptors Nicola Hicks, Élisabeth Daynès and the Kennis brothers

We looked at Nicola Hicks, who does these beast-like hybrid human animal sculptures with such amazing texture. It looks like sticks and mud and all sorts have just been slapped on there to firstly create a great silhouette, but, secondly, to create something that feels tactile and powerful and fast and can camouflage – all these things you’re looking for when you’re making a monster movie set in a forest. She was really important from that point of view.

There’s also a French sculptor called Élisabeth Daynès, who does a lot of Palaeolithic reenactments. There’s also the Kennis brothers, Adrie and Alfons, who work for museums to build up Palaeolithic, early modern humans from casts of skeletons. I was really taken by the thought process they put into the clothing and the hair and the life they put in the eyes.

The Kennis brothers constructing their model of Ötzi, Europe’s oldest known natural mummySimon Claessen

I was living in London at the time and going to the Natural History Museum; it was an early modern human exhibition there, and standing next to this five foot two Neanderthal, at the time when we were starting to talk about the movie, made me feel confident that I didn’t feel like I’d seen this. I didn’t feel like I’d seen the humanity in our ancestors and how useful that can be to tell a story about inhumanity.

Out of Darkness, backed by the BFI Filmmaking Fund with National Lottery money, is in cinemas from 23 February.