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Cinematic depictions of ancient or near-ancient times have come a long way since the likes of 1960s cheese classics like “Prehistoric Women” and “Creatures That Time Forgot,” pictures that put the curvaceous likes of Martine Beswick and Julie Ege into animal skins and made them grunt in no particular lingo and pivot provocatively as they fled all manner of primordial danger. The new Scottish near-horror picture “Out of Darkness,” set 45,000 years prior to the present day, has copious dialogue in a language called “Tola,” concocted by a linguist and archeologist based on real research and everything. It also doesn’t have a cheesy or cheesecake-oriented bone in its body — in the cold climes of this picture every character is layered up to the extent that secondary sexual characteristics have no chance of making themselves known. And in any event, in their increasingly desperate efforts to survive, sensual activity is the furthest from everyone’s mind.
The movie begins around a campfire, and there are stories being told there. We’re in the company of a nomadic clan, with its own alpha male, named Adem (Chuku Modu), aptly enough. He’s a commonsensical type. When the elder of this band, Odal (Arno Lüning) tries to scare young Heron (Luna Mwezi) with a tale of demons, Adem sternly states “There are no demons.” And yet there’s something stalking them as they negotiate hostile-to-human forests and rugged coastlines. That thing kidnaps Heron, and threatens the well-being of Ave (Iola Evans), who’s carrying Adem’s child.
The unknown force compels the individuals in the small group to put down their own agendas for the nonce and concentrate on not getting killed. One member of the band is a stray woman Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green), whom Adem does have some sensual-activity aspirations toward; the younger man Geirr (Kit Young) is a warrior-in-training of sorts. This is a clan not wholly united by blood ties — the time in which they live renders the existence nasty, brutish and short, so bonds are forged by necessity, the movie demonstrates. But the contingent nature of alliance breeds mistrust, and callous disregard, as we see when certain members of the group start being treated like bargaining chips relative to an enemy these parties don’t understand and can’t seem to battle. The performers are clearly committed to their characterizations in ways that seem to go above and beyond the requirements of their call sheets — their roles are physically demanding for one thing, and the personalities they’re depicting have few contemporary traits by which the viewer might be ingratiated.
The eerie music from Adam Janota Bzowski, the vivid dark-hued cinematography from Ben Fordesman, and the ultra-crunchy sound design from Paul Davies and his crew make this challenging atmosphere an engrossing environment to visit while constantly compelling you to note that you sure as hell would not want to live in it. The story told in “Out of Darkness” is ultimately sad more than terrifying, a parable about violence and the roots of human war. It’s an impressively credible and gnarly journey back in time.