Just outside of our perceptions, there exists a world of dreams, nightmares, ghosts, and lost souls. When we go to sleep at night, we are visited by either Storytellers, who give us pleasant dreams and watch over us as we sleep, or the Incubi, who also visit us in the night, but fill our minds with pain and suffering. This is the story of Ink, a Drifter, who is neither Storyteller nor Incubus, and how one night, he steals the soul of a little girl named Emma. He plans to take her to the Assembly as a sacrificial offering, so he can become a giver of nightmares.
It is also the story of John, Emma’s estranged father, whose humble beginnings and rough childhood dog his heels with his own dreams of ambition and power. He is a corporate wheeler/dealer who works eighty hour weeks. In between his climb up the corporate ladder and his alcohol and drug binges, he tries to be a decent father, though he sometimes forgets his ambitions to play with his daughter. An accident takes his wife, and Emma is taken away to live with her grandparents, leaving John alone with his thirst for success as well as his vices.
All of this is pretty much in the first ten minutes of the movie. It draws you in and makes you the newest resident of this liminal shadowland of death and dreams. The worldbuilding of this story is tight, and the special effects are truly original. Just wait until people start breaking the furniture, and you’ll see what I mean. With a budget around $250,000 (that’s right, thousand), Ink puts recent big budget blockbusters to shame. And the best part of Ink is the story. Go figure.
Reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s motifs, Storytellers and Incubi flicker in and out of our reality. The Storytellers are warriors whose appearances vary from Hot Topic to Old Navy. They have different strengths and methods. Some fight with brass knuckles; others fight with kung fu and steel-capped batons. Some are Pathfinders who follow a path based on rhythms and the ordered sequence of events and their ability to affect them. Storytellers travel between the worlds, playing coded beats out on small hand drums. It’s a nice shamanistic flourish considering the subject matter of dreams, death, and waking.
Also travelers between worlds, the Incubi are a jumble of black-PVC fetish gear, business suits, and child molester glasses. They wear transparent screens across their faces that crackle with cathode ray fueled lightning, perpetually grinning as they stalk the people of the waking world. The Incubi are evocative of Doug Jones’ work as one of the Gentlemen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Their look is less organic and more industrial. The more they smile, the less you want them to.
The movie was promoted as a horror film when the trailer began circulating the internet a few months ago, which is maybe how you heard about it or maybe why you haven’t. Though horrific in places, if you are expecting the next Hellraiser, prepare to hate this movie. It is much more like Neil Gaiman’s work than Clive Barker’s.
The story itself is an adult fairy tale. And I’m not talking bow-chicka-chicka-bow-bow here. I’m talking about story that draws that sense of wonder out from our crusty, jaded adult hearts and says “Hey! Remember this?” It finds resonance with films such as Pan’s Labyrinth, Mirrormask, and Brazil. Adult fairy tales aren’t limited to plots centered on making friends and sharing adventures with plush, gamboling and jabbering animals. They exhibit themes like loss of innocence, reclaiming one’s sanity after tragedy, or simply giving up and slipping away into a world that is easier to endure.
The non-linear way the movie progresses comes off as Canadian arthouse in the vein of Exotica or Blindness. Tensions build scene by scene, yet never get any racier or more violent than what appears in Lord of the Rings. The fight scenes are a display of bloodless full-contact, choreographed martial arts, more like Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers than Fight Club, however they are still effective. The nightmarish pieces are not much scarier than Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal, but rest on the verge of being much worse, which also works in building tension.
Occasionally, Ink does come off as film school project, especially with the liberal and often jarring use of expletives. It’s as though the writer/director is insisting that the movie is not for children and that adults should be paying attention.
This can be forgiven in part because of the captivating way the story unfolds. All too often, movies today lack story: special effects and big name Hollywood actors are the main draw. By the time moviegoers begin to realize they’ve just wasted another ten bucks, another explosion or gratuitous sex scene holds them for another five minutes. Fortunately, while Ink does have visual appeal and loads of action, its heart and intelligence surpass just about anything a summer blockbuster can throw at us.
Jessica Duffy as Liev, the head Storyteller, entrances us in every scene in which she appears. She is equal parts Neo from The Matrix and your favorite teacher in elementary school, fighting with an intensity that would put the alley scene in John Carpenter’s They Live to shame.
Quinn Hunchar, as Emma, comes across as a real little girl rather than a precocious mini-adult. It’s refreshing to see this in a movie these days. Her interaction with the Storyteller, Liev, is brilliant, especially when juxtaposed with the darkness and pathos of the titular Ink. She evolves throughout, rather than just serving as a damsel in distress.
Chris Kelly plays John, Emma’s father in absentia, like he’s wearing a second skin. John’s world has become a waking nightmare of watching his life disintegrate since his wife’s death and his meteoric, yet empty, rise to success. He becomes the focus of a tug of war between the Storytellers and the Incubi as they fight for control of him.
The other Storytellers are warriors on a quest to keep Emma from dying in the real world. Led by Allel (Jennifer Batter), a hardened warrior who literally carries a big stick, the Storytellers and a Pathfinder (Jeremy Make), search for clues to find Emma’s soul and wake her up before her body dies. Make’s Jacob is hypnotic as he gleans important details from his surroundings. The Pathfinder is the comedic foil to Ink’s Byronic anti-hero. I did find his over-the top antics to be distracting, and sometimes grating, but considering the nature of a character living in a shadowy quasi-world with X’s of electrical tape over his eyes, I made allowances for quirkiness in his case.
The cast of other Storytellers offers up plenty of unique characteristics to distinguish each of them in their group of Seven Samurai type warriors. These are the sorts of beings you would want watching over you at night.
The Incubi plague people as personal demons. They whisper lies and doubts into their ears while they are sleeping. Not much is known about them nor is it explained where they come from or what their purpose is. All we know is that whenever they appear, the heroes get worried, and so do we. They are the stuff of dark alleys, basements, and frankly anything else that scares the hell out of us.
Parts of Ink remind me of Darren Aronofsky’s earlier films, Pi and Requiem for a Dream. Compressed snippets of action show, rather than tell the story. The fight scenes and location shots are more like Robert Rodriguez’s guerilla-style filmmaking from his early years. Jamin Winans borrows liberally from other filmmakers and stitches their techniques together beautifully.
Thoughtful, intelligent, and often heart-wrenching—Ink brought back the sensawunda, just the way good storytelling should. Even though some points in the story were telegraphed, its depth was enough to keep me enjoying the story as it unfolded. I was only disappointed to see the story end, taking with it characters I had gotten to know.
Throughout I kept telling myself it had to be a Canadian film. Americans just don’t make movies like this anymore. The mountain locations were breathtaking, as were the meadows and rolling hills of aspens, the way the sepia tones of the light played on the landscapes. The city was bland and non-descript. It could have been any city, but lacked the gothic landscape of “The City” which permeates movies these days. Everything seemed very familiar, lived in. At the end of the movie where I expected to see: “Filmed on location in Ontario and British Columbia” instead, I saw “Denver, Arvada, Commerce City, and Crested Butte.”
I was blown away. Ink was shot in any number of my old stomping grounds in Colorado! I’ve seen quite a few movies, independent and studio-fed, that have been made in Colorado and Ink has got to be one of the best. Yes, it is low-budget and has all the burrs and quirks one would expect from such, but where it fails in places with less than Academy Award caliber acting, CGI, or special effects, it more than makes up for in originality.
Ink could have gone to extremes in any direction–tormenting us with a splatter fest or presenting us with a saccharine, puppet-choked kids’ flick. Instead, Ink tells a compelling story that will stick with you long after the credits roll. If the makers of big-budget monstrosities aren’t worried about an independent movie like this, they really should be.