A DARK FOE, written and directed by Maria Gabriela Cardenas, also written and starring her father Oscar Cardenas, also produced by Maria Gabriela Cardenas and Oscar Cardenas, is a dark mystery, with a demonic foe, a childhood trauma relived in adulthood and FBI Agent Tony Cruz (Oscar Cardenas) fighting his phobia of the dark to stop it all.
A DARK FOE is Maria Gabriela Cardenas’s first feature, shot when she was 25, taking two years to release. It takes some swings, introduces some interesting conceits, but ultimately stumbles through too many set-ups without a clear payoff.
But rather than break the film down in its entirety, let’s try something different. Let’s talk about strippers in movies. Because this film has the requisite “scene in a strip joint” every movie adds to underline the “bad” characters from the “good”. Whether it’s a comedy, police drama, or horror movie, the Strip Joint Scene is always dropped in to have characters meet in a seedy environment and things go wild.
Funny enough, a film can be judged by how it handles the Strip Joint Scene. Because the problem isn’t necessarily applied morality or that’s it’s an overplayed trope. Strip Joint Scenes in films can still be fun or engaging. No, the problem is almost always the lack of care in the details.
Take A DARK FOE’s Strip Joint scene right at the beginning of the film. At this point, the audience has been introduced to the main protagonists and has an idea of what the antagonist will entail. But it’s all still a mystery. Enter the Strip Joint Scene. Our main character needs to find a person of interest in a strip joint and so the audience follows along into a postcard of stripping.
Strip joints or strip clubs or simply nightclubs by current time have been all but normalized. Gone is the immediate expectation of a seedy bar with sad women limping around a pole. No, the sheer lines outside the popular strip clubs and the fact that pole-dancing exercise studios have membership packages state clearly that strip joints are an array of experiences past the surface expectation. In A DARK FOE, FBI agent Tony Cruz and some other guy stop at a strip club to find a person of interest and immediately walk into… women wandering around in matching Target lingerie or “blink and you miss it” spinning topless around a pole in the background.
A DARK FOE is a movie with psycho-sexual undertones that didn’t bother to care what actual strippers look like. There are entire online and brick-and-mortar stores devoted to stripper wear for a reason. Underwires hurt when worn all night and there’s nothing exotic about matching satin mauve underoos. A DARK FOE took the concept on surface, seedy people, without bothering with the details and this approach is all over the film. Characters are caricatures making decisions that only serve the plot, as thin as it grows over the run of the film. Now, of course, a strip joint can be littered with dancers in the first piece of lingerie they could afford. But that’s a different space than the strip club agent Tony Cruz walks into. Or at least, one would expect the agent to find his crime lord ghost from the past holding a table and on a first-name basis with the dancers in a club where the girls have higher standards.
And let’s talk about the first dancer they meet who just gives up where this ne-er-do-well character is seated. No, that would not happen in this scenario. These girls work in a club with an element of danger, why would they be trained in anything but anonymity for their customers? Much like a dinner party scene where after agent Tony Cruz has an episode regarding his fear of the dark, host psychiatrist Doris (Selma Blair for some reason) takes the opportunity to counsel and become fascinated by this man. That’s hard to believe, that an armed stranger to her could have a mental episode and her first instinct is to be enthralled. Unless this was meant to be a melodrama. In which case, A DARK FOE is missing those over-the-top elements (dependent on attention to detail) that would define the film as a melodrama.
Speaking of details, consider the drink machine. A drink machine, like the kind a quarter is dropped in and spits out a soda, is illuminated in the background of the club in A DARK FOE’s Strip Joint Scene. This isn’t to say, a rough area strip joint wouldn’t have a drink machine. Laws are very different across the country when it comes to consumables in the same building as naked. But the A DARK FOE strip club is designed to be a place of repute, with bad dudes sitting at their personal tables, known to the staff with caution. This strip joint is clean with good lighting and a bar. What the hell is a bright drink machine doing on the floor? Simple answer, they didn’t notice during production design, a similar issue all over A DARK FOE.
A DARK FOE’s Strip Joint Scene screams learning from inspiration, not experience. As mentioned, the pitfalls listed in the execution are not A Dark Foe’s alone. It happens all the time in films struggling past the idea to depth. The writers of A DARK FOE executed their Strip Joint Scene as a thousand of those scenes have been executed, just as the entire movie is a thin quilt of better films.
A DARK FOE isn’t a terrible film. It’s a great first feature for a new director. It just doesn’t have anything to say that hasn’t been said before. But it might have if development had moved away from ticking off the boxes of what their film should have within it and spent more time invested in the worlds they were pulling from.
A DARK FOE is now available On Demand. All images courtesy Vertical Entertainment.