When we fall asleep, we unknowingly receive visits from spirits who control the nature of our dreams. With a single touch, Storytellers provide us with an entire night sleep’s worth of pleasant fantasies where chocolate cake is the ultimate weight loss tool and jamming Hendrix-style in front of a cheering crowd comes naturally. Alternately, falling under the shadow of a malicious Incubi induces illusions that harken to our deepest fears of inadequacy and self-doubt. One night, a drifter named Ink, neither Storyteller nor Incubus, steals a young girl, Emma, from her slumber, and it’s up to the benevolent Storytellers to retrieve her before Ink can deliver her as a sacrifice to the Incubi hierarchy.
Therein lies the set-up of 2009’s independent fantasy picture, Ink; to describe it as “low-budget” would be to severely understate just how little money went into production costs both above and below the line. While $250,000 might seem like a small fortune to people like us, that’s essentially pocket change in a cinematic world where a film like The Hurt Locker, clocking in with a 15 million dollar budget (which likely excludes marketing), is considered to be on the lower end of things.
I mean none of the above as criticism; in fact, that quarter-million dollar tally presents a large part of the film’s charm. Independent films lacking even private financial backing have to run on something other than cash-flow. In the case of Ink, that “something” happens to be heart and imagination. After all, when money’s scarce, what else do you have at your disposal to make your film stand out?
This doesn’t mean that Ink isn’t without its flaws; most notably, you really feel the effect’s of the film’s budget in the quality of its actors, whose performances range from decent to kind of awful. These are clearly non-professional actors, amateurs, and while it’s easy to write off the quality of their acting based on those merits, that almost feels like an excuse for the department in which the film is most lacking. Christopher Soren Kelly, without question, comes out the best pulling double duty as the uncaring father of the purloined child as well as the enigmatic Ink, and there are other entertaining performances sprinkled across sections of the film (particularly refreshing is Jacob Make’s wisecracking, laid-back pathfinder, a blind spirit assigned to assist the Storytellers in their quest) . And in fairness, none of the performances are so offensively bad that their presence serves to mar the rest of the film, but a weakness is a weakness.
But as I’ve said, the rest of Ink is a pretty nice ride. While director Jamin Winans lacks funds, he and his crew have a healthy reserve of ingenuity and creativity to draw upon to counter-act their film’s money problems. What they’ve done here is construct a myriad of different worlds– aside from the world of the waking, there is the peaceful haven of the Storytellers, situated in quiet forests and golden fields; the dark, viridian-tinged lair of the Incubi, seemingly a cross between a grim place of worship and place of business; and the spirit world, a lonesome and sorrowful place depicted through a blue gel wherein the common sprites and phantoms flit about their business, be that trading odds and ends or entertaining delusions of fame and celebrity. Each world appears accessible only through the use of small hand drums, which when played open portholes used for inter-planar travel. Ultimately, they add up to a sprawling dream universe, a series of locales wholly different from one another but undeniably connected all the same. The particulars of that combined universe are mostly left to mystery. That mystery makes the film feel all the more tantalizing.
But the greatest invention of the film lies in the design of Ink‘s antagonists. The Incubi may well be completely unlike the wraiths that stalk your own dreams, and for that you also may well be thankful. The leering faces of the Incubi are projected onto face plates from the glowing lights of their own eyes, as a film is projected onto a movie screen; their faces are locked into perpetual smiles, deceitful and false visages that betray their true purpose and motive. The idea and conception of the Incubi is elegant in its simplicity, and effectively unnerving and chilling in its execution.
In the end, what Ink does is remind us that making a movie isn’t always about having an enormous budget, and that having gobs of money at your fingertips can’t make up for a dearth of inspiration. Ink‘s worth lies in Winans’ big imagination and his ideas, and his ability to make the most of what he has, creating compelling worlds and engaging effects on a shoe-string budget. The film does admittedly wear its budget on its sleeve, so much so that it might actually be hard to believe that it cost as much as it did– but that, of course, needn’t be a bad thing.