Imagine being trapped inside of a building, unsure of what is going on in the outside world but terrified nonetheless. You are surviving solely off of food in your house and debating how you will get more as its running low. While this may sound like March 2020 to many Americans, families faced the same struggles in the 1950s during the Cold War, on a much larger scale, with many more risks.
Darkness in Tenement 45 (or DT45) takes place during the Cold War, inside of a tenement building in New York City. The lead character Joanna, played by Nicole Tompkins, lives in the building with other adults and children that are all searching for a safe sanctuary from a biological threat from the Soviet Union. Locked inside of the house with dwindling food and a fear of the outside world, the group has to figure out how to survive. Viewers observe each member of the household debating whether or not the dangers they have been told are out there are fact or fiction. We also see Joanna battle with demons from her past that she describes as the darkness.
Lead Nicole Tompkins delivers a noteworthy performance as a teenage girl with mental instability during an unprecedented time. With the COVID-19 pandemic still lingering, this role will be relatable to many in the world at this time. Tompkins makes viewers believe that she is crippled by anxiety and past nightmares, which is no small feat. While previously featured in mainly short films including Hazel, Tompkins has also been featured in TV series such as American Horror Story, movies such as After Masks, and even voiceovers in video games such as Resident Evil 3. With such a diverse background, we can expect to see Tompkins light up screens again in the near future.
Director Nicole Groton brings an almost 1980’s horror movie feel to certain parts of the picture. When we see Joanna having nightmares—or entering the darkness—the red smoky hue Groton chose to include adds that element. Some may be reminded of A Nightmare on Elm Street during these shots. Groton also utilizes the demure and dirty atmosphere that would have gone hand-in-hand with this time period, which is a calculated choice. Groton has previously directed two short films, including Hole in the Wall, and a documentary entitled The Melting Family. She has also written everything she has directed, including this film, which is an impressive accomplishment. Along with directing, she has also been a producer, editor, sound editor and actress in other works. For a first fictional feature film, Darkness in Tenement 45 is something that Groton should be proud of.
One element of the movie that might have been better left out centers around Tomas, portrayed by Nicolas Aleksandr Bolton. Playing a young teen, Tomas is enduring the many changes that accompany puberty while in the tenement. While this is an interesting perspective, the way it is executed is a bit crude. Tomas ends up finding arousal by looking at his sisters’ chests. When he glances at their breasts, he rushes off and locks himself in a closet to look at photographs of women in lingerie. One can appreciate the portrayal of a young boy and his changing body while in quarantine and the obstacles that would go along with that. However, it could have been shown in another way without leaving viewers giggling at its silly display or cringing at the incestuous context. An especially distasteful scene involving Tomas and his sisters can be seen near the end of the film.
Despite boasting a one-of-a-kind storyline, at times the film feels like it drags on despite being only 95 minutes long. Some of the longest, most slow-moving moments are when Joanna is seen in the darkness. While they contain some disturbing imagery and a fun 80’s horror movie vibe, they also contain anticlimactic shots of Joanna looking frightened while slowly walking. Furthermore, the shots in the darkness unfortunately occur at moments that viewers are more concerned with what the household is going to do in real life. Introducing fewer moments containing just Joanna and her nightmarish fears and instead allowing the realistic issues the tenement faces to take center stage may have been a more effective decision.
The ending of DT45 attempts to answer the question of who is right and wrong about the outside world. While some believe it may be safe, others are convinced that leaving the house would be deadly. The answer is clear by the end, but unfortunately it feels like an anticlimactic finish that showcases over-dramatic acting, especially from Casey Kramer who plays Aunt Martha.
Being able to release this film during a divisive time in the United States helps elevate this movie further. Not only are we still battling a pandemic that has altered our normal lives, we also are on the horizon of a historic election. Between the mounting fear of illness and characters behaving more like dictators than caretakers, spectators will be able to relate to the challenges they face.
This day in age, women are still not acknowledged in the ways they should be in the film industry. Groton proves that women belong in all areas of film, including directing and writing. Her first fictional feature length film confirms that women can craft an inventive and dark thriller. We hope to see more works from female directors and writers, including Groton, in the near future.
If you’d like to watch Darkness in Tenement 45, keep an eye out for the film on all streaming platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Vimeo, Xbox, Google Play, FandangoNOW, iNDEMAND and more starting November 3rd.