It’s tough for me to read a book and not imagine what it would be like as a film. I just spend so much damned time thinking about movies and writing about movies that even when I’m venturing into other mediums, I inevitably find a way to fit them into the context of film. Could it work? If not, why not? If yes, who should make it? Who should star in it? They’re unavoidable questions.
And yet, while reading Brian Keene’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, those questions never popped up in the back of my mind. That’s not because his novel doesn’t lend itself naturally to cinema, it’s because they didn’t really have time to. I can’t recall the last time I tore through the pages of a book the way I did Keene’s story about a town that is suddenly and inexplicably engulfed in darkness. Now that I’ve finished it, turned on the lights and can breath again, I’d love to think about the pitch as to why the material is a perfect match for a movie (despite being written in a decisively anti-cinematic style).
The basic set up is a pretty easy sell: the story follows a small group of characters (led by an average Joe named Robbie) who try to survive the maddening chaos that sets in after their town is inescapably shrouded in darkness. No moon, no stars; just onyx. On the edge of town is a particular kind of darkness; the kind that whispers ill thoughts in your ears and tries to lure you into its endless maw with hallucinations of long lost loved ones. There’s no escape, so the only logical path is to wait it out until rescue comes. With every passing hour, however, the darkness infects the citizens of Walden with impure thoughts. Within days the whole town devolves into Bedlam.
So why is it perfect for a movie? For starters, it’s incredibly intense and what happens in it (particularly in the minds of its characters) is always believable and rational despite how consistently unbelievable the story is. It’s got just the right number of set pieces and plot devices to keep things going without ever idling over one place or problem for too long. Plus, from a stance of pure practicality, it should be relatively easy to make considering how far technology has come with digital sets.
It takes place in a small town, primarily in and around an apartment building, and the only major special effect required is to black out the sky. That’s no challenge at all these days, so it should be a relatively inexpensive film. Plenty of practical make-up effects would be necessary, however, to sell the violence and anarchy that befalls the town, but even those aren’t abnormally difficult to pull off. That means, as a whole, it’s a pretty cheap endeavor.
Ease of logistics aside, it’s just such a damned cool story. Keene writes it from the point of view of a single character who is keeping a journal, which is an approach that really helps cement Darkness on the Edge of Town as a story that’s more than worthy of comparisons to H.P. Lovecraft. It’s not just because it features talk of Lovecraftian beasties, either; it’s because it’s all about the arrival of a previously unseen and unknown terror and how the revelation of such a force turns the brains of most men into mush.
But, again, you don’t need a big budget to make that happen. You just need a resourceful, creative director and a strong cast to bring it all together. I’m a realist, though. I know that a story this deceptively simple is outside of Hollywood’s grasp. Just look how The Mist was treated and perceived. People, both sitting in board rooms and sitting in the audience, didn’t quite know what to make of the movie or the story. Those kind of people need answers; and answers are precisely what stories like Darkness on the Edge of Town and The Mist (which is referenced directly in the former) refuse to deliver on a silver platter.
That kind of a mindset isn’t what studios are interested – I know that, you know that – but it is what people like you and I are interested in. I’m okay with a story that’s deliberately disquieting. I actually like it when characters are just as clueless about the reason for their situation as I am. It gives their drive to figure it all out an infectious sense of urgency
And that’s what a lot of sci-fi films have been missing lately. District 9 had it, but the bigger studio fare (the Star Treks and the Avatars of the business) are all about the destination and not the journey. A Darkness on the Edge of Town – which is just as much a sci-fi story as it is a horror story, in my book – movie could fill that void snugly. I just hope someone with a bit more influence than I realizes it and starts things in motion.