Out of Darkness is a wildly ambitious Stone Age horror

A small group in the Scottish Highlands of 43,000BCE fight for survival in Out of Darkness, a wildly ambitious feature debut that punches well above its weight Liam Maguren writes.

As one of the only Stone Age horror films to exist on a modest budget, Out of Darkness makes for a wildly ambitious feature debut from writer-director Andrew Cumming. The film immediately caught curious eyes when it premiered at the 2022 London Film Festival (then known as The Origin), telling a story of a small tribe of six left wandering the Scottish Highlands devoid of wildlife to hunt or vegetation to forage. Their possible salvation lies on the other side of a forest, where a feared creature is said to lurk.

Our Palaeolithic protagonists include stray girl Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green), clueless boy Heron (Luna Mwezi), pregnant Ave (Iola Evans), curmudgeon Odal (Arno Lüning), brutish leader Adem (Chuku Modu), and insecure second-in-command Geirr (Kit Young). The actors fully commit to their roles, convincingly relaying the film’s made-up language Tola invented by linguist Daniel Andersson. Oakley-Green in particular shines as the group outlier, the fear in her eyes not coming from the beast in the bushes but from her unwanted role as the pack’s most expendable member.

For many, the sight of these modern actors posing as cave-dwelling humans from 45,000 years ago won’t feel convincing. However, according to the film’s historical consultant Rob Dinnis, we might be holding onto outdated ideas: “the view of primitive, club-wielding cavemen is a hangover from more than 100 years ago and has been rejected in scientific circles for many years now. Humans at this time would be perfectly recognisable as like humans in the modern day.” That might not explain the characters’ clear skin and Colgate-quality teeth, but you can’t accuse the film of not doing its research. Even Adam Janota Bzowski’s score uses era-accurate musical instruments like bone flutes and kudu horns to immersive effect.

It’s an impressive amount of period detail for what ends up being a rather uncomplicated horror-survival film. There are a lot of neat corner-of-your-eye moments of visual creepiness and one fantastic moment of practical gore, as well as a couple of eye-rolling fake-out jump scares and one very unsatisfying death scene. Fortunately, the story elevates the material above cut-n-paste-horror-with-a-neat-gimmick by burrowing into the merciless nature of survival and the destructive nature of fear itself. The threat of the monster comes second to the tensions within the group, and that suspense carries the narrative through to the bitter end.

Looking sumptuous doesn’t hurt either. Shot during the COVID lockdowns of November 2020, cinematographer Ben Fordesman gets a lot out of the sights and moods of the Scottish Highlands. Shooting just a mile away from the filmmakers’ hotel accommodation, the world of Out of Darkness feels expansive and treacherous thanks to the wise use of the Scottish location of Gairloch. Natural but barren, curtained by fog, and smothered in grey skies, it makes for a beautifully gloomy state of limbo populated by those on the brink of death.

The lighting acts as life itself, in that it’s bare and fleeting in this environment, a brittle beauty that threatens to be swallowed by the darkness. The film blooms and bellows with the flickering yellows of the bonfires that keep the pack alive at night, a sparse sense of safety that makes the lack of it feel tense (it leads to one of the most suspenseful fade-to-blacks you’re likely to see). There’s also a striking use of luminous and ominous greens to simulate an Aurora Borealis, an effect achieved with one sky panel connected to an iPad.

Out of Darkness is packed with these detailed touches that might not reinvent the wheel, but it sure makes the wheel look inventive, which is more than good enough for a film set during the Old Stone Age. Punching well above its weight to hit a humble target, Cumming has kicked off his career with one of the most unconventional conventional horror films to come out of Britain.