Living Dark: The Story of Ted the Caver (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on the internet legend Ted the Caver—a man who kept an online journal of the virgin cave he came across but whose posts completely stopped following an entry involving one last descent—“Living Dark,” based on the screenplay by David L. Hunt (who directs) and Kevin Brown, is an effective suspense picture that is able to accomplish plenty of mixed frights despite a very tight budget. However, instead of embracing a focused visceral horror experience, it is hindered by a sad story of two brothers named Ted (Chris Cleveland) and Brad (Matthew Alan) who are reunited after their father’s passing. Although I admired the filmmakers’ attempt in getting us to care for the characters outside of the box of survival horror, it is clear that the dialogue is not the material’s forté.
Cleveland and Alan, who share believable chemistry, are up to the task of establishing a meaningful connection between brothers who, despite being only two years apart, have never felt all that close. Ted begrudges Brad for having a habit of doing his own thing even though there are times when he is needed back home; Brad thinks Ted is so rooted in their hometown and family that his elder brother never got a chance to truly live. On a conceptual level, it works. I think most of us would be able to relate and empathize with these characters.
But during the more dramatic moments—for example, when the siblings unearth a memory but one does not remember at all or recalls quite differently—I could feel the actors making an effort to let the words on the script flow a little better, to make the lines sound like phrases that actual people would say. These moments of pain and humanity should come across natural, but instead I found myself distracted due to the occasionally unpolished script. Instead of appreciating emotions or considering what someone might be thinking due to what is expressed (or not expressed), I focused on the subjects’ behavior. And at times these do not match of the words being uttered. There is a disconnect which took me out of the moment.
The exploration is two-fold: Ted and Brad’s rocky relationship and the obsession they develop to discover what’s hidden inside the cave. A case can be made that the two elements must be effective in order to have a thorough appreciation of what will transpire during the third act. As a whole, I found the former to be somewhat crippled in parts while the latter holds its own.
The horror-thriller elements are done rather well. I enjoyed how it employs slow build-up like when the brothers discover a small hole that leads to another room. Not only is there a breeze coming from there… there are indiscernible noises, too. It’s strange at first that no matter what is done to the hole—sledgehammer, pickaxe, drills—it just won’t get any bigger. For a long while we wonder if the cave itself is supernatural. Further, the picture has an eye for truly claustrophobic scenes such as a body squeezing through a crawlspace. There is a wonderful balance of the camera fixating on a terrified face as well as body parts being taken over by panic. So, you see, the threat is not only what’s waiting deep in the cave. It knows that sometimes what goes on in our minds can be far scarier than what faces us.
“Living Dark: The Story of Ted the Caver” deserves a marginal recommendation. I appreciated the effort put into it despite the lack of ear for dialogue and a few supporting characters—Uncle Charlie (Mark Hayter) and Joe the gas station attendant/enthusiastic cave explorer (Circus-Szalewski)—that should have gotten more time on the spotlight. (They have a lot of personality.) The work is elevated by a good enough understanding of what makes certain situations scary. And scares do not always have to involve creatures in the dark. Sometimes a strange noise outside of one’s window in the middle of the night (digital clock shows 3:32 AM) is enough to slap our eyes wide open.