Darkness is a by-the-numbers haunted house thriller that recalls a number of other films in which a family moves into a mysterious old manse with a sordid past. The father (Iain Glen) hears voices and flies into sudden rages (see The Shining and The Amityville Horror); the sensitive, artistic son (Stephan Enquist) is the first to spot the otherworldly presence (see The Sixth Sense or The Ring); the mother (Lena Olin) is painfully oblivious (see any of the above); and only the level-headed, virginal daughter (Anna Paquin) has any hope of saving them (see almost any horror film ever made).
The family in question has just moved from the United States to Spain (no reason for the move is given; clearly they’re there to be in a horror movie), where the mother, a nurse, has gone to work at the hospital that also employs the paternal grandfather, a doctor played with old-pro relish by Giancarlo Giannini. Between the boy’s mysterious companions and the sudden return of the father’s seizures and hallucinations, things are not going well. It’s casually mentioned that a major eclipse is a few days away, a “special” eclipse that comes but once every 40 years (no reason is given for this type of eclipse’s “specialness”), and we can pretty much see every turn and “surprise” the plot will offer. It’s another old trick: set up a precise moment at which the climactic event (a human sacrifice, of course) must take place and have the characters all start racing around at the last minute, hoping this creates suspense. It might have, if we had any real reason to care one way or the other.
As the father, Glen cracks up more or less credibly, and daughter Paquin seems equal parts common sense and nubility. Enquist, in his first film role, is a pleasingly obstinate, insular, and unprecious child. All of which serves to make Lena Olin’s character seem that much more ridiculous. As written (in the script by director Jaume Balagueró and Fernando de Felipe, with additional dialogue by Miguel Tejada-Flores) and played, she’s so deeply in denial that she sloughs off her son’s mysterious bruises and merely shrugs and walks away when her crazed husband, who’s told her that he hears larvae whispering about the family in the walls of the house, takes a pickaxe to the parlor floor.
As the kindly grandfather who, naturally, turns out to be the mastermind of the entire shady situation (by mentioning this, I give away nothing that a 10-year-old couldn’t have figured out inside the first half-hour), Giannini gets to have the most fun, living in a fabulous art deco apartment where, like so many members of secret cults that practice human sacrifice, he keeps a life-size painting of the ritual over the mantle, and delivering lines like, “Darkness, my dear, pure darkness. A kind of evil in its greatest form, pure and alive.”
Balagueró has attempted to enliven the clichés by throwing in a few more recent additions to the bag of horror-film tropes: super-jittery camera, split-second cutting (with accompanying bursts of spooky sound), sped-up film that makes people’s movements all jerky, etc. He’s also drenched the film in water imagery — any time it’s not raining, Paquin is swimming or bathing — but these images don’t seem to exist as metaphors for anything; they’re just there to be moody. Visually, Balagueró gives David Fincher’s attorneys plenty of grounds for suit.
Darkness is a Spanish/U.S. co-production that was originally released overseas two years ago, and it’s not hard to see why Dimension Films didn’t rush it into theaters. There’s not an element of the film that isn’t recycled, but it moves along briskly enough, and a few of the scare scenes work. The film’s final scene, which I thought its most effective, elicited gasps and complaints from many members of the audience, so take that for what you will. Darkness will probably be a satisfying time-killer for anyone desperate for big-screen horror, but those looking for real suspense or big scares would be better off renting one of the films Balagueró has ripped off.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()