When Darkness Falls
The Indie thriller When Darkness Falls is a bleak look at the dark side of the human psyche as two American women, Jess and Andrea, hike into the rural Scottish countryside and encounter a pair of strange men at a tavern. Andrea wants to stay and drink, but Jess is not interested and leaves. What they don’t know is the men are rapists and robbers who are ready for another round of ruthlessness.
When Jess returns to the tavern to fetch Andrea, the barman says her friend left with both men, prompting a desperate search by Jess. However, nothing is what it seems as director Nathan Shepka and screenplay writer Tom Jolliffe take us down a twisted road of duplicity. Shepka also stars in the film alongside Craig McEwan, Michaela Longden, Emma O’Hara, and Ben Brinicombe.
When Darkness Falls opens with a harrowing chase scene powered by the brief but haunting performance of Niamh O’Donnell. Without a word, O’Donnell projects the determination and fear of a battered and haunted victim desperate to escape her attackers.
Then, the story shifts to American tourists Jess and Andrea, who only recently reconnected. Jess lacks confidence and tells fun-loving Andrea, “I just don’t want you to feel like I’m a burden.” The tent scene where Andrea explains why she invited Jess along for the trip is the sweetest moment in the film. Longden’s performance as Jess is one of the highlights of the film as she carries the moral weight of the story on her back.
Nathan Shepka, A Man of Many Talents
When Darkness Falls is Shepka’s second feature-length directorial effort following 2021’s Holiday Monday. Shepka wears a lot of hats on his films – actor, director, producer, and writer. Which does he enjoy most?
“Honestly, probably the acting. And ironically, it’s probably the one that I’m worst at,” Shepka says for this exclusive interview. “There’s loads of room to grow with acting though, and I like developing a character. I like playing different characters, and I like surprising people. As time goes on, I’m getting more comfortable in front of the camera and find it easy to immerse myself and get lost in a scene as pretentious as that sounds.
“Directing was sort of a means to an end in a way,” Shepka continues. “I do enjoy it and it means you can further enhance your creative vision, but it was really borne from the want to put more of my stamp on it and not have someone else come in and interpret their way. I didn’t write When Darkness Falls, but Tom and I’s style and creative inspiration are very closely aligned, and it was nice to direct someone else’s script for a change. Producing is by far the most challenging and stressful. It’s the area where you get all the spanners thrown at you and often last minute, but it’s all part of it.”
Like its title implies, When Darkness Falls is a dark story with a Hitchcockian sense of tension.
“The film is actually almost a retelling of a 1970’s British movie called And Soon the Darkness, which was about two British girls cycling in rural France and one of them goes missing,” Shepka says. “It was also remade under the same name in the States. We flipped it and had two American girls on a hiking holiday in Scotland. Overall though ours does go a bit more twisty at the end. The original was very linear and probably tame by today’s standards, so we took the original concept but ultimately the film plays out totally different, and I think we’ve probably got a better payoff for horror fans.”
Shepka, a Scottish filmmaker, also featured the beauty of his homeland with sweeping shots of the countryside in the movie.
“Really the main point of that was just to convey passage of time or location change,” Shepka says. “Beyond that function, the purpose of the copious location shots were to convey the beauty of Scotland but also the desolation and the mystery of it. I think there’s something quite lonely and foreboding about it. And I wondered what would be scarier than running away from someone in the middle of nowhere in the dark? Running away from someone in the middle of nowhere in daylight. There’s nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, no one is going to help, and you can’t hide in the darkness. And I thought there was an irony in that for the opening chase in the film.”
The desolation and mystery of the landscape bleed into the characters of the movie. At one point in a bit of foreshadowing, Andrea tells Jess, “People are shit.”
“The film is pretty bleak,” Shepka says. “I think morally there wasn’t a specific takeaway intended, but upon seeing the finished product, I think you can probably take from it that everyone has secrets, people aren’t necessarily what they seem, people are all different shades of grey, and motivation to do the right thing can actually just be someone doing the right thing because it suits them or for personal gain. I suppose it is meant to almost serve as a warning, but humans are complex creatures and there’s a lot of horrible people out there, so I don’t think there’s any harm in portraying that message even if it is a little cynical.”
The ending, particularly the final shot, of the movie is ambiguous but satisfying. It was clever in that it could be interpreted either as a glimmer of hope or hopelessness.
“I do like a bit of a downbeat or ambiguous ending,” Shepka says. “I liked the Rosemary’s Baby ending because it was both settling and startling and frightening in the same way. You’re disturbed by the fact that Rosemary is going to become attached to the baby, but it also says something about that maternal instinct. It was very clever. Same with The Long Good Friday. It was downbeat and a bit hopeless. It’s horrifying when you know a character is going to their death, and their fate is sealed, and the film just ends on that hopelessness. It works for thrillers, I think. I did like the ending of the last (Indiana Jones) movie. It was bittersweet because it was a fitting ending to the franchise and (Harrison) Ford’s career as Indy, but it was also tinged with sadness. They captured a real interesting tone there.”
Shepka’s next film, Lock & Load, was released on streaming platforms in the United Kingdom on July 24 and is scheduled for release in the United States later this year.
“Lock & Load is actually a sequel to our first feature Holiday Monday,” Shepka says. “The concept being that most of the film is set on a bank holiday and sees two freelance private security personnel become embroiled in something that starts as an easy job and spirals out of control. Things get progressively bloodier. It’s almost a Die Hard with a Vengeance-type idea but on a budget. You don’t have to have seen the first movie, which was called The Bank Holiday Job in the UK, to get Lock & Load. I think the second one is better. It’s certainly bigger, and we’ve stepped it up.”