Writer-Director Nicole Groton’s Darkness in Tenement 45 captures the fear of the current moment with the world’s population self-quarantined in their homes. Although filmed prior to the recent Covid-19 outbreak, the indie horror flick taps into the mindset of hysteria, distrust, and cabin—or should I say tenement?—fever.
Set against the backdrop of the post-war 1950s, Darkness in Tenement 45 takes place in an alternate timeline where Josef Stalin threatens the United States with biochemical warfare. The opening prologue does a good job of capturing the aesthetic of 1950s science-fiction disaster films, complete with authentic-looking news clippings and scenes shot to match the appearance of period footage. This sequence sets the tone for the film, where the nuclear families of New York are evacuated for safety, save for a few groups of people who stay behind.
One group huddles together in a run-down tenement building, trying to outlast the wave. They’ve boarded up all the windows and doors. Cut off from outside communication, they anxiously wait for signs that it is safe to go outside again. When food runs low and Felix (David Labiosa, The Entity) decides to don a biohazard suit to brave the outside world and search for supplies, the remaining adults and children find them under the thumb of Martha (Casey Kramer, Behind the Candelabra), who self-elects herself as leader in Felix’s absence. But her niece Joanna (Nicole Tompkins)—who has a secret as to why she’s living with her aunt and suffers from a mental illness only referred to as “the darkness”—and the other children fear her iron fist.
As an ensemble piece, Darkness in Tenement 45 possesses the intimacy of a theatrical production, allowing the actors to play off each other’s strengths to effectively portray the sense of claustrophobic horror required of the material. We come to appreciate the bond between the children and loath the “sacrifice others for the greater good” mindset held by the adults. In many ways, Kramer’s portrayal of Aunt Martha brings to mind the icy demeanor of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. As in other single-location quarantine-themed films, such as The Mist and 10 Cloverfield Lane, Darkness in Tenement 45 reminds viewers that the more prescient danger can manifest from within rather than without, that the darker side of human nature can be more terrifying than initially imagined. It is only a manner of time before the palpable suspense builds to an over-the-top final conflict and twist ending.
However, the film is not without a few missteps. Some of the tenement occupants come across as caricatures, while others take weird psychological turns. For example, Felix’s son Tomas (Nicholas Alexsandr Bolton) is going through puberty which creates awkward tension between him and his two sisters Isabel and Isolina (Maria Martinez and Melissa Marcedo). Furthermore, Joanna’s haunting dreams provide a vivid blue and red Suspiria-like color lighting that contrasts to the otherwise green-yellow color timing; however, they aren’t as abjectly terrifying as the present situation. In addition, the nightmares don’t fill in all the pieces to her backstory, even after her aunt reveals why Joanna is staying in the tenement. But they do add to the film’s atmosphere and also raises the question of whether her perspective should be trusted more than her aunt’s.
Despite its flaws, Nicole Groton’s film remains an engaging piece of cinema and sets a high bar for independent women filmmakers in the genre. Overall, Darkness in Tenement 45 comes across as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” meets William Friedkin’s Bug to create unrelenting psychological unease.
Rating: 8 out of 10 stars
|Darkness in Tenement 45|
|RATING:||UR||No Trailer available|
|Runtime:||1 hr 35Mins.|