Maria Gabriela Cardenas on a Family Affair Full of Fear in “A Dark Foe”

In a family you can tell that has a delightfully twisted sense of humor, it is fitting that while Maria Gabriela Cardenas’ feature debut “A Dark Foe” may concern how evil can be passed down from one generation to the next, she can speak to how good can be too, having gotten the bug to make films early on from her father Oscar, who himself was given a camera to shoot on when he was 12.

“He always loved films and he put that on me,” recalls Cardenas. “Because we used to watch so many films when I was little — four or five films every weekend, and that’s how my love for film came.”

Oscar had tucked more than a few horror films into the mix, which came back to haunt him when his daughter would set him up as FBI agent Tony Cruz, covered in blood and excrement at different times throughout “A Dark Foe,” chasing after a serial killer named The Cradle (Graham Greene). Just as the film is uniquely personal with the father/daughter duo in front of and behind the camera, the story follows suit as this is no ordinary case for Cruz, who believes the Cradle murdered his mother and abducted his sister when he was a young boy, contributing to a crippling fear of the dark when he continues to have a sense memory of cowering in the attic when the killer was in his home. While his obsession with finding the Cradle becomes too much for his superiors, kicking him off the case, he isn’t thrown off the trail, taking a security job that allows him to get close to Rebecca (Kenzie Dalton), a woman with ties to the underworld and has her own reasons to see the Cradle be captured.

All sorts of skin crawling stuff happens in “A Dark Foe” as Tony and Rebecca draw nearer to the Cradle — and grow more intimate with each other in the process, but as grisly as the crimes committed are in the horror flick, Cardenas glides through the seedy places the duo venture into with a fluidity that reflects where their minds are going as much as with their feet and doesn’t spare an audience the perspective-altering things they see. With the film primed for late night viewings either at home or at select theaters this weekend, Cardenas spoke about how she kept her debut all in the family, how the most gruesome parts of the film may have been the best to experience on set and how she was scared herself after seeing her first assembly cut of the film.

How did this come about?

It was actually my father Oscar’s idea. Before this film, we wrote a lot of short stories and did a lot of short films together, and one day he came up with this idea and I told him, “We have to do this as a feature film. It’s time.” We have always been a fan of suspense and noir films, so we really wanted to dive in on this character who is obsessed of finding his sister and carries this guilt, but we also wanted to explore psychologically how it could affect him having his mother murdered and his sister taken away and him staying in the dark for three days. Nyctophobia can happen to any person — it’s an irrational fear of the dark that can be caused because of a traumatic event — so we wanted to portray that in a way that was scary, but at the same time unique, so we added this layer of this phobia coming back [in the form] of this psychopath coming back into his life so it’s almost impossible for him to go to reach his goal of getting over it. [My father] lives in Venezuela and I live in L.A., so we started doing a lot of FaceTime every day, and after a year or so of back-and-forths, the story became “A Dark Foe.”

You really engage with this dream logic in how you’ll create locations that feel like you’re moving through a maze in the mind. Was that difficult to pull off?

Along with my cinematographer, we wanted to accomplish three worlds. There’s Tony’s world where we see it’s dark and a little bit depressing, with these cold blue tones and a little bit of yellow. And then we have the world where we’re introduced by this lead Rebecca, who’s going to take him to The Cradle, and that world, we wanted to make it more vibrant but at the same time, have these neo-noir colors because she takes us to this underworld, and when we dive into [the lair of] The Cradle, the psychopath of the movie, we wanted to these earthy tones, so it’s very dark and has a cringy feeling. As far as the camera movements, there were certain scenes that I really wanted differentiate the worlds, where we’re in Tony’s world and we see it in one way, and then we go to this neo-noir world and the steadicam takes you through and when we go to The Cradle world, we go under, so we did have a lot of fun trying to connect all the worlds, but at the same time in a way that’s continuous.

You really put your father through the ringer. Were some of these his ideas or did you find it fun to torture him?

It was mutual. [laughs] He knew what he was getting into from the start, but he also was a trooper. He took it so seriously and we made him go through hell — his character goes through so many obstacles [where] you’re like, oh my God, this is going to happen to him now. Now this is going to happen. But he was there on set very focused, and he was Tony Cruz, so that didn’t matter. We could throw him in the dump and he’ll be fine. [But in general] it was a hard shoot because we had so many locations and it was 28 days, so we had to go very quickly. Doing the latrine scene was challenging. Also when we were at the young Tony’s home, that house didn’t have the attic crawl space, so we had to recreate that and it was my first time doing that, [so I wondered] how are you going to shoot it? But thankfully, I was surrounded by many people that I knew had a lot of experience doing stuff like that.

You get such impressive performances out of those kids in that scene. Was working with actors an exciting part of the process?

Definitely. It was my first time actually working with kids and they were the ones that I actually had the opportunity to do rehearsals with and they were so great. They’re such nice kids and they built such a strong bond during the rehearsals that I think when we got on set, they knew what they were doing. They looked like little adults. They were behaving extremely well and they’re so talented. I see them doing great things.

On the opposite end of things, is it true you had Graham Greene in mind from the start for the Cradle?

Yeah, we really wanted to see how our movie could stand out and wanted to do a different type of serial killer, and I thought of Graham Greene because he’s such an incredible actor. He’s done a hundred movies, but we’ve always seen him play these good character, so we thought about him right away, and it was amazing because the second we reached out to his agents about playing the role, he came to us and said, “Yes.” It was a super dream come true.

And of course, he gives this bone chilling monologue about skin and you have one of the most disgusting cadavers I’ve ever seen – were you having to go to dark places to think about this stuff?

It’s so funny because it’s obviously crazy when you see [the cadaver] on screen, but it smelled really good [on set]. [laughs] It’s so funny how it turns out to be on camera or in the editing room when you get to see everything put together because you had something in your mind, but you don’t really know if it’s going to work or not. But it all turned out really good.

When it’s your first feature, was it what you thought it would be?

It was, and I’m so proud of it, but I’m surprised that it turned out the way it did because you’re always scared that the story won’t work, but the outcome is what I expected it to be and more. The rough cut was extremely long, like 2:40 and it was like, “This is terrible.” But we started making tweaks here and there, and you’re so in love with your project that sometimes you have to back up, leave it for a few days, and then come back and reedit, reedit, reedit until it’s actually good to go. And the people we had – Paul Ratajczak, the sound designer, also worked on “The Fighter” and he’s incredible, and also [our composer] Tim Jones, who did [music for] “Captain Marvel” — when you’re surrounded by people that are so passionate about what they do, the outcome is incredible. We were in good hands.

“A Dark Foe” opens on July 30th in Los Angeles at the Pasadena Playhouse, the Monica Film Center and the NoHo 7 and New York at the Village East Cinemas and on VOD.