A DARK FOE – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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I don’t quite remember exactly what it was that I was doing at 25, but I sure as hell wasn’t directing a feature film – let alone one co-written with and starring my father. So already, Maria Gabriela Cardenas and her debut feature A Dark Foe are forces to be reckoned with; this emerging director, writer and producer from Venezuela had her eye on the prize since the age of 14 when she began studying filmmaking in California, going on to complete undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications in filmmaking and producing. Beginning with music videos and short films, with her father Oscar Cardenas – who plays A Dark Foe‘s tortured protagonist and who also co-wrote the film with his daughter – they established Path of Thorns Entertainment, their production company focused primarily on thrillers and horror films, with a number of other projects currently in development.

Taking two years to make, A Dark Foe follows FBI Agent Tony Cruz whose obsessive dedication to his work life is thwarted by childhood trauma and a chronic case of nyctophobia (fear of the dark). Haunted by the murder of his mother and the abduction of his sister when her was only a child, as revealed early in the film, as an adult his paths cross with the man responsible for his own tragic losses, which are simultaneously linked to a stream of vicious serial killings and a sex trafficking ring. Forced out of his job because of his condition, despite the best efforts of his psychiatrist Doris (Selma Blair), Tony must find work elsewhere and is hired to follow wealthy femme fatale Rebecca Crawford (Kenzie Dalton), whose story too links back to the case that so overwhelmed him at the FBI. With all the threads slowly coming together, the question is: will it be too late for Tony to save more of the killer’s endless parade of victims, and even himself?

A Dark Foe cannot be accused of not thinking big enough; it is a sprawling, even epic story that evokes everything from classical film noir to Silence of the Lambs to Georges Franju to, perhaps inadvertently, Trisha Rae Stahl’s character Onacona who – while quite fabulous – would perhaps be a better fit in a John Waters movie than an otherwise quite serious neo-noir crime thriller. There is no question that Maria Gabriela Cardenas is at the beginning of a promising career as a filmmaker and just as doubtless is the fact that working with her father both as co-writer and lead actor arguably solidified and personalized a professional relationship spawned from their parent/child relationship. The down side to this, however, is that in its close to two hour run time, A Dark Foe is simply too much – too much going on, too much crammed in, too much to coherently fall into place as smoothly and as seamlessly as it really needed to in order to create the punch the film is so obviously desperately to make.

But with A Dark Foe, Maria Gabriela Cardenas has shown she can direct; this is a young woman more than up for the job, with a skillset that surely will only develop further over time. She should not stop, and she should be not just applauded but actively supported in doing so; this is a tough industry for women filmmakers, to state the obvious, and while this may not be her magnum opus or reach the level of perfection that she was aiming for, this film suggests that she absolutely has the capacity to do so with a little more experience. So support this film, support this filmmaker, and let yourself go on a wild – although not exactly flawless – ride into the dark side. A Dark Foe isn’t Maria Gabriela Cardenas’s masterpiece, but there is evidence here that she has one in her – and for a feature debut film, that’s no small thing.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).