An exercise in pure atmosphere, Andrew Cumming‘s debut feature is a survival thriller in its purest form. Set in the early Stone Age, its very premise lends itself to a most stripped-back of narratives, and hurls the viewer into the most primeval, instinctive battle to stay alive. Its staging and thrill levels don’t quite meet the standards of the impeccable atmosphere, courtesy of the imposing Scottish scenery, natural lighting, and an incredible elemental score, but there is much to admire in this mash-up of Predator and Clan of the Cave Bear.

45,000 years ago, a family of homo sapiens desperately seek a space in which to settle. Their situation looks bleak in a rugged, inhospitable environment where food is sparse, the soupy mists chill to the bone, and the darkness cloaks something vicious that poses the most immediate threat to the depleted tribe. Suspicion falls on ‘stray’ Beyah (Sadia Oakley-Green) as her arrival in the group coincides with the beginning of the attacks.

The first thing you notice about Out of Darkness (also known as The Origin when it premiered at Glasgow Film Festival in 2023), is how immersive the world in which the tribe find themselves is. It simply feels authentic on a gut level, even as you understand that the language spoken by the group can’t possibly be accurate, and that the family dynamics feel a little modern. It’s wreathed in mysticism and wind and earth and blood, driven by an almost shamanic atmosphere that’s reminiscent of Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, despite the vastly different temporal locations.

Gut level pretty much sums up the way in which Cumming’s film operates. The characterisation is minimal but effective in establishing the relationships and the stakes. Adem (Chuku Modu) is the alpha male with a pregnant mate Ave (Iola Evans) and a young daughter Heron (Luna Mwezi). He also eyes up Beyah as a backup, given Ave’s dwindling strength due to lack of food and the very high likelihood that she could die in childbirth. There is nothing else at play beside everyone’s instinct for survival, but that is enough for factions to develop and betrayal to fester.

This all takes place in a bleak world of either bleached daylight or stygian darkness. Cinematographer Ben Fordesman has taken pains to make the lighting as natural as possible. There’s also a great use of negative space and the cuts between open vistas and stricken, bare woodland gives a constant sense of dislocation, leaving the group in turns tightly constrained or desperately exposed. Perhaps the film’s ace is the score from Adam Janota Bzowski; more than any other aspect it taps into something primordial. At times droning like the very hum of the earth, at times howling like a malevolent beast, and occasionally unearthly in a way reminiscent of Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury‘s work on Annihilation. It’s a stunning accompaniment.

Unfortunately the substance of the film doesn’t quite match its presentation. More here than almost any other movie, the ‘who is the real monster?’ trope is valid. But it’s still a trope. Even as the story wrenches itself towards a basic allegory for our suspicion and fear of the other, it’s less impactful given that it’s entirely understandable in this most vicious and primal of settings to react in this way – we’re still hardwired with that fight or flight evolutionary switch. Despite its impressively staged climax it’s not as impactful as it could have been as it tries to shoehorn in that comparatively modern moralising.

In cinemas from Fri 23 Feb 2024