There’s a lot to like about Darkness in Tenement 45, the debut feature by documentary maker Nicole Groton, not least of which is its basic premise. In the 1950s, worried that the Soviet Union may launch a biological attack on the US, President Truman orders its major cities to be evacuated. In New York City, however, there are handfuls of residents who won’t leave, and the occupants of Tenement 45 have barricaded themselves inside, wary of the disease (and possible Soviet invasion) outside their doors.
Groton imbues the film with both period style and a sense of claustrophobia, and manages to create a very hateable villain from her very ordinary cast of characters, yet taken as a whole the movie just doesn’t come together, and is somehow lesser than the sum of its parts. Nicole Tompkins as troubled teen Joanna acts as our proxy, seemingly level-headed when others are losing theirs, but she, too, carries a darkness to her which, when it finally appears, is sadly underwhelming. The rest of the cast are a mixed bag, their veracity varying from scene to scene, but Anthony Marciona as Horen is good value, the most human of the adults on show.
With a higher budget and a more-experienced cast, Darkness in Tenement 45 could have been one of the Covid-era’s sleeper hits, an exploration of the threat outside all of our doors from disease, paranoia, and consent, but its restrictions, and a slightly-unravelled climax, mean it’s just another low-budget thriller, albeit one with an interesting premise.