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An above-average British-made mind-bender starring the terrific Thora Birch (AMERICAN BEAUTY, GHOST WORLD).  Despite some poor choices on the part of first-time director Ray Gower, the film is an absorbing puzzle that constantly keeps one on edge. 

The Package 
     I’ve long admired the work of the cute and brainy Thora Birch, an actress who’s been working steadily since her film debut at age six (in the 1988 kiddie flick PURPLE PEOPLE EATER).  Since attaining stardom of a sort in AMERICAN BEAUTY, Birch can usually always be counted on to choose interesting movie projects; DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS (2000) is an admitted exception, while THE HOLE (2001) likely seemed promising in its early stages, even if the results were so-so. 
     Incidentally, two of her co-stars, Keira Knightley (from THE HOLE) and Scarlett Johansson (GHOST WORLD), have gone on to superstardom while Birch, alas, has not.  But let’s not forget that Knightley and Johansson were supporting players in those films, which were headlined by, and arguably made all the more effective because of, Ms. Birch.
     DARK CORNERS, reportedly written with Thora Birch in mind for the lead, is an English production written and directed by the debuting Ray Gower.  It was granted a VERY limited theatrical release in late 2006, and is now readily available on DVD courtesy of Anchor Bay.  Those looking for a horror flick that’s fresh and interesting are strongly advised to check it out. 

The Story 
     Susan Hamilton, a young and attractive professional woman, has a problem: she’s living two separate lives.  In one she’s Susan, contented blonde wife of the dashing, good-looking David.  In another reality she’s Karen Clarke, the clinically depressed brunette assistant to a depraved coroner.  Susan/Karen finds herself flashing back and forth unexpectedly between these two existences, one “real” and the other apparently not...but which is which? 
     The events of Susan/Karen’s worlds seem to dovetail in weird ways.  A serial killer, dubbed the Night Stalker, is loose in each reality, and murders her best friend in both.  But there are differences, for instance the fact that Susan sees a cagey shrink who hypnotizes her to cure her “nightmares”, while Karen is stalked and imprisoned by the Night Stalker, a tall, glowering creep--plus there’s an evil dwarf she has to contend with who takes a bite out of her leg one night and digs a hole in her back yard.  But then the dwarf crosses over into her other existence, as indeed Susan’s and Karen’s worlds begin to gradually meld together until it becomes difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. 

The Direction 
     As a debut film DARK CORNERS is impressive, even remarkable in the way it alternates its differing realities and eventually melds them into a fractured whole.  As an evocation of cinematic psychosis it nearly attains the heights of classic brain-tuggers like JACOB’S LADDER and LOST HIGHWAY.  Writer-director Ray Gower’s helming is strong and confident, his scripting bold and imaginative, and his handling of actors quite fine.  However, he over-relies on shock-horror sequences (i.e. a corpse with a stitched-up mouth sitting up on an embalming table and trying to speak) that ultimately have little bearing on the story, and labors under a wildly bombastic, distracting music score.
     The film is something of a showcase for Thora Birch.  I could have done without a protracted scene of Thora on the toilet (which seems the in thing these days--see Cate Blanchett in NOTES ON A SCANDAL and Ashley Judd in BUG), but she succeeds in playing two very different characters, making each a distinct and intriguing--not to mention sexy and charismatic--individual.  Of course, what exactly happens to those individuals is left up to the viewer to decide.  The ultimate explanation, or a part of it at least, seems fairly straightforward to me (it’s outlined in a speech Birch recites that provides the title), but you may have a different interpretation.  The brilliance of the film is that it actually seems worth the thought required to decipher its enigmas. 

Vital Statistics

Shoreline Entertainment/Matador Pictures 

Director: Ray Gower
Producer: Nigel Thomas
Screenplay: Ray Gower
Cinematography: Paul Sadourian
Editing: Simon Wilcox, Charlie Harvey
Cast: Thora Birch, Toby Stephens, Christien Anholt, Joanna Hole, Lorraine Bruce, Ray Charleson, Michael J. Reynolds, Alan Perrin, Oliver Price, Glenn Beck, John Bown, Sheryl Gannaway, Barbara Keogh, Ian Porter, Dominic Porter, Judy Wilson

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