Dreaded Light (2022)
Dir. Mark MacNicol
by Ellis Reed
MacNicol wrote, directed and co-produced it, resulting in a nicely made (and sometimes eye-coveringly tense!) domestic thriller. Grieving widower Duncan (Adam Robertson) sleeps on a sofa and urinates in the garden to avoid going upstairs, where the rooms are filled with painful memories. As well as facing (or rather not facing) his own demons, he has to contend with those of his daughter – troubled teen Michelle (Rachel Flynn) – who has an aversion to daylight, an unhealthy interest in old vampire movies, and a general tendency to act up.
After setting the scene, Dreaded Light introduces a spiritualist medium (Kirsty Strain) who claims to have a message for Duncan. His knee-jerk response is hostility, but then – inevitably – he has a change of heart and asks her to help. Together, they try to unpick the cause of Michelle’s odd behaviour.
Based on a top level summary, you might expect Dreaded Light to be a vampire movie, and a fairly straightforward one at that. The reality is a lot more interesting. After teasing the possibility of a vampire, the script touches on themes of grief, spiritualism and madness, weaving them together in a way that holds interest and never seems derivative.
The performances are all very strong for a low-budget feature. There aren’t any duffers in the cast, and Flynn does a fantastic job of putting everyone’s nerves on edge (I’m not ashamed to say I watched some of her scenes through my fingers!). Robertson gives a convincing and layered performance; he plays Duncan as a man who’s so distracted by his own grief that, for much of the film, he can only muster a very muted response to his daughter’s eccentricities.
In terms of production, the film is very nicely put together. The score is provided by Duglas T. Stewart (the original BMX Bandit!) who adds a lot of value to the film. The photography is atmospheric throughout, and the more surreal passages are approached very creatively. Standout moments include a scene with a home movie and Flynn’s unnerving smile, which has now been reprised for the cover art. The lighting and general atmosphere are superb, especially considering the size of the production.
For a first foray into the genre, Dreaded Light is an assured debut, and well worth a look if you like good indie horror. Recommended.
As well as making this film, Mark MacNicol has a background in directing for stage and using art to promote social causes. He works with the Creative Change Collective (formerly Street Cones) to address social challenges across Scotland, helping people to bring about positive change in their lives through creative practices associated with film, theatre and performance. His stage play IncludED, about the exclusion of people with learning disabilities, is touring Scotland this month. We took the opportunity to ask him some questions about Dreaded Light.
ELLIS: Congratulations on putting together a tense and very well made feature! You’ve described yourself as ‘a writer first and foremost,’ but, with Dreaded Light, you also became a producer-director to get the film made. What were the biggest surprises and challenges? And do you plan to make more films this way?
MARK: I had directed and produced Theatre but this was my first feature so every day felt like my first day at school. Biggest challenge was being vulnerable and telling people when you didn’t understand things. Great cast and crew made it much easier. I’m already working on my next feature so the frustrations and challenges clearly haven’t put me off.
E: The plot of Dreaded Light touches on themes like grief, mental health, and supernaturalism. What was the genesis of the story? Did you always know what the ending would be, or did it emerge during the writing process?
M: The story is fictional but inspired by an encounter my mother had with a medium, and a baby she lost the year before I was born so everything about the project is very personal. I can’t remember exactly when I came up with the ending though. Definitely emerged during the writing process. Probably quite late on.
E: What were the main cinematic influences on Dreaded Light? Do you consider yourself a big horror fan, or did you just have an itch to tell this particular story?
M: I wasn’t a horror fan but certainly became one as I started a deep dive and over the period of a couple of years watched lots of classic and contemporary horror. I found jump scares quite irritating, so I knew I definitely wanted to keep those to a minimum and explore other ways to build tension. Not so much cinematic influences but French painter Georges de La Tour was an influence and his use of light. The daughter’s daylight phobia meant all daytime shots done inside with curtains closed so only exteriors at night and daylight feeling like it’s trying to break through.
E: The performances were great, which is something you don’t always see in smaller productions. How did you get the acting talent, and what was it like directing the cast? Did your theatre background help, or is a feature film a different beast entirely?
M: My Theatre background was an advantage when it came to casting as I had seen or worked with most of the cast previously. Cast well and get out of the way. I’m not an acting coach. I can definitely talk to Actors about the story and character motivations etc but ultimately if you write and then cast well experienced and skilled Actors are a joy to work with.
E: The film has a great score by Duglas T. Stewart of BMX Bandits. How did that collaboration come about, and what was your process for working together?
M: I have a friend who is in a band and knows loads of great musicians. Turns out there are actually loads of established musicians out there who are keen to make film music. There were a few candidates and Duglas was the first I met and we clicked straight away. The guy has an encyclopaedic knowledge of film music. It was his first score but hey it was my first feature so why not? It was a good decision he was an asset to the production I’ve no doubt he’ll do more film music.
E: You’ve got a background in community art, including projects like the Creative Change Collective. Your stage play IncludED, about the exclusion of pupils with learning difficulties, is touring Scotland this month. Do you have any plans to return to horror? And what else do you have in the pipeline?
M: My community arts work mostly uses film and theatre type projects to help vulnerable adults and young people in particular the justice system and people in recovery but other areas also (ccc.scot for more info).
As for future horror plans? Dreaded Light is a non identical twin. I wrote a second script called Nameless Graves. The same question is asked in both films – After physical death can evil spirits come back? No spoilers but in one film the answer is no and in the other the answer is most definitely yes watch this space follow my socials @markmacnicol. Lots more Film, Theatre and community arts projects in the pipeline.
Many thanks to Mark MacNicol for taking the time to answer our questions about Dreaded Light! You can watch it right now on Amazon Prime. If you enjoy it as much as we did, review or rate it on Rotten Tomatoes, Amazon or IMDb to help support indie horror.