Out Of Darkness: a brutal, horrifying entry in the canon of prehistory on screen

Andrew Cumming’s savage feature debut doesn’t stint on the scares – and weaves in troubling questions about the primal history of human violence.

21 February 2024

By Kim Newman

Out of Darkness (2022)
Sight and Sound

The history of prehistory on film goes back to the earliest days of cinema, with D.W. Griffith directing Man’s Genesis in 1912. The plot of that 17-minute saga turns on a societal shift whereby Weakhands (Robert Harron), a clever but slight hero, fashions the first club and is able to defeat the bully Bruteforce (Wilfred Lucas), signalling a shift away from strength towards intelligence as the dominant characteristic of humanity.

Other significant events in the early history of mankind feature in One Million B.C. (1940) and its remake One Million Years B.C. (1966) – which both chronicle battles between the brutal Rock tribe and the more ingenious, pacifist Shell Tribe but throw in crowd-pleasing yet ridiculously anachronistic dinosaurs for matinee action – and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s serious anthropological speculation Quest for Fire (1981), which follows a band of proto-humans on a journey that’s also a technical advance. These literally primal stories float about in the mists of Andrew Cumming’s feature debut Out of Darkness (previously titled The Origin), which constantly sets itself up as not just about a key moment in history but about the way storytelling represents such turning points. Man’s Genesis is framed by an old caveman telling his grandchildren how they came to be civilised. Here, storytelling is also spin. What is in essence a small act of genocide is justified around the campfire by reframing a territorial conflict between disparate branches of humanity as a struggle between true men and monsters.

Out of Darkness begins with a small band gathered around a fire that stands as a lone beacon in a world of deep night. Heron (Luna Mwezi), young son of leader Adem (Chuku Modu), demands stories. Characters are always trying to define their roles in an extended family saga, aware that those with no plot purpose will be written out. Competing versions of their situation on a new shore are put forward by the dominant narrators. This is either a heroic pioneer narrative or a horror story about venturing into a cursed land.

Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green), a ‘stray’, is attached as a back-up child-bearer should Adem’s mate Ave (Iola Evans) miscarry (again) or die in childbirth. When Beyah begins to menstruate, Ave tells her that her place is more secure now she has a use. Later, after Adem has been horribly mutilated while attempting to retrieve Heron from unseen creatures, Beyah steps in to put him out of his misery with a stone dagger when his brother Geirr (Kit Young) can’t bring himself to take responsibility. It’s also Beyah who suggests the act that makes us wonder who the real monsters are in these woods – that the survivors should eat Adem to get through the night. Nevertheless, when Odal (Arno Luening) – characterising himself as ‘Wisdom’ – lists the individual qualities that make each member vital to survival, he tags the stray as the most suitable sacrifice to appease the demon.

Shot in bleak Scots landscapes, Out of Darkness plays like a savage quest saga, with overtones of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2009) or even Beowulf (2007). It’s filmed as a horror movie, with jump scares and slow-build chills, literally wallowing in bloody earth at one point. The narrative progresses from the shore through the woods and up into mountain caves – all locales of myths in the making – and in the climax, the survivors of the tribe venture into a cave to confront demons, as in such gruesome fringe horror items as Sergio Martino’s Prisoner of the Cannibal God (1978) or S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk (2015). In these films, the survivors of primitive forms of man persist in out-of-the-way places; unwary compromised travellers venture into their world and are rent bloodily to pieces. The demonising of ‘caveman behaviour’ or of extinct hominids is deeply ingrained in our culture – there are horror films called The Neanderthal Man (1953) and Trog (1970) – as if the odious Odal had won his propaganda war.

Cumming and screenwriter Ruth Greenberg slip in a counter-argument. Oakley-Green’s spunky, resourceful, determined Beyah is a tribal heroine in the making; but even this ‘final girl’ might qualify as oppressor rather than saviour. When the mask comes off the ‘monster’, the story is reframed as an inept invasion – murderous and deadly, repaying even attempts at kindness with expert violence. We’re left to contemplate what exactly this has been the origin of.

Out of Darkness is in UK cinemas from 23 February. 

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