CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS
Context is everything. When this played at FrightFest in 2013, I really didn’t care for it at all: in fact it was one of my least favourites of the festival that year. Watching it again on a review disc, over a year later, I’m now seeing it in isolation rather than surrounded by dozens of more easily labelled horror films, and in that context I’m finding it plays slightly better. But it’s still a film I fundamentally don’t like very much.
I don’t think Dark Tourist is a horror film except within the genre’s (and the festival’s) broadest possible scope: the press blurb suggests it’s in the tradition of Taxi Driver, in that it is a remorseless character drama, a very dark psychological study of a deeply disturbed mind. But it really isn’t in Taxi Driver’s league. Jim (Michael Cudlitz) is a night security guard at a Yonkers factory. He is also, ghoulishly, a grief tourist (the original, and much better, title of the film was The Grief Tourist): he spends his holiday time visiting the sites of serial killings and mass murders. On this occasion he has chosen 1960s Californian arsonist and spree killer Carl Marznap, driving out to the derelict remains of his childhood home, the abandoned juvenile detention facility where his murderous anger was fuelled, and the church he burned to the ground with the congregation locked inside it. But Jim also has dark secrets of his own...
These dark secrets lead to a sexual sequence with the prostitute next door which to be honest I could have done without, but this is in service of the big plot twist of Jim’s nature which frankly doesn’t need to be there except as a plot twist. There is already enough character drama in Jim’s macabre fascination with the life stories of serial killers, and his visions of and interactions with the ghost of Carl Marznap (Pruitt Taylor Vince), as well as his awkward romance with a lonely widowed waitress (Melanie Griffith). The third act revelation that [SPOILER ALERT] Jim is a serial killer himself means the film has a measure of graphic violence towards the end, but it feels unnecessary.
As a psychological drama about a man with a very strange hobby and his difficulties interacting with other people (he seems to find it easier talking with the ghosts, making you wonder if he’s always haunted on these quests), Dark Tourist is not without interest, and I certainly don’t think you can fault the acting. Even then, I think the film could have done with lightening up a little as it’s a pretty grim trudge to somewhere you don’t particularly want to go. Overall I still don’t like the film very much, but it’s certainly not as bleak and unlikeably downbeat as it felt the first time around.