Toward the end of Dark Touch, a girls-gone-Carrie nightmare of flying knives and pencil-porcupined corpses, director Marina de Van offers up an unsettling vision of just what it is decent people enjoy about the kind of just-pretend pain and disfigurement that this film so adeptly exploits. A flock of little girls sit on the lawn at a birthday party, playing with their dollies, plastic-craniumed babies with just the kind of dead eyes you might expect. The group is creeped out by the weird girl, Neve (Marie Missy Keating), a pale and brooding brunette invited to the party by concerned mothers, and whose eyes–wouldn’t you know it!–also are deadened to the point of spookiness.
The girls, discomfited, begin abusing their dolls: slapping them together, denting the skulls, relishing the horribleness they find themselves capable of. And the girl who’s different–well, being the stringy-haired, ostracized, pre-pubescent lead in a horror film, all this playful mayhem inspires her to unleash the real thing, the hell inside her that’s always just about to shatter windows, burst into flames, or send the contents of knife drawers into bad people’s tenderest bits.
The dolls get well and truly jacked up. Whether or not the little girls do I’ll leave you to discover. For all its soaring cutlery, Dark Touch, like much of the best horror, works the fears that connect to real life. We see Neve alone, ripped from her family, loathed at school, traumatized by offscreen abuse, misunderstood by adults, and at one point moved to something like scarifying superheroics when she discovers other kids suffering something like what she has. Keating’s performance suggests a medicated sleepwalk, a pre-teen Mr. Hyde trying to hold it all in when letting it all out would be such a relief. It never is a relief, though, as hurting real people is nothing like banging up dolls. De Van’s gore is surprisingly extravagant for a film this steeped in everyday lives. After a strong first 20 minutes or so of portents and mysteries, de Van stages an early climax showing us just how horrifying things can get. These deaths aren’t the “fun” kinds from fright-flicks of old; they’re tragic, messy, grotesque, and sometimes prolonged. Dark Touch isn’t a pleasure to watch, especially, but that early violence establishes a keening tension that soaks through the scenes like a storm about to burst. And then, by the climax, everything gets darker still. The last act follows a kid’s logic to brutal extremes–it doesn’t quite make sense, but it is compelling in its madness, evidence of de Van’s superior horror-craft.
It’s hard not to think of school shootings or other real-life horrors during Dark Touch, but that’s to the film’s credit. The unsparing, un-glamorized, un-hilarious, truly horrific depiction of kid-on-world violence may not be a moral use of the cinema. But it is amore moral use of it than the bloodless, joyous, dance-like battles real kids see in PG-13s. Here, killing is as upsetting as the wrongs the killing is meant to avenge; here, killing is nothing like kids smashing up their dollies.