We don’t know much about prehistoric humankind, except for the idea that it wasn’t very human. Even paleontologists find the field’s accepted facts in constant revision based on new theories and an incomplete fossil record. Suffice to say, if it’s 45,000 years ago, as stated in the somber, enervating, occasionally ridiculous horror film “Out of Darkness,” you’re mainly looking for a warm cave to avoid cannibals. There are no villages and little in the way of tools or comforts.
British director Andrew Cumming, making his feature debut, has taken a crew out to the Scottish Highlands — also where 1981’s “Quest for Fire” was shot — to capture what is essentially “Alien” or “The Blair Witch Project,” as a small group of terrorized characters gets picked off by an ominous, wailing creature in the fog-shrouded woods. Desperately, they try to light a bonfire before the sunlight fades. It doesn’t matter. The sequence-building has a monotony to it, as does the percussive, insta-Penderecki score by Adam Janota Bzowski.
There is a kind of rigor here in the wholly invented language that the actors persuasively speak while also somehow sporting chic, seamed trousers, manicured eyebrows and trimmed beards. (Razors don’t come along for another several millennia.) Safia Oakley-Green finds a groove as Beyah, a tough survivor within the pack, which also includes a foolhardy leader, Adem (Chuku Modu), an unhelpful, panicky advisor (Arno Luening) and Adem’s untested son (Luna Mwezi).
“Out of Darkness” is effective enough — and gory — to function as a thriller of the loud-noise-springing variety. But a last-act grasp at profundity in Ruth Greenberg’s screenplay feels unearned. Remember those debates from a few years ago about “elevated” horror? This feels more like evolved horror. Our instincts haven’t changed all that much over time. Grungy and committed, Cumming’s effort is an especially heavy lift to arrive at that origin point.