Darkness, released on Christmas Day last year (after spending years on Dimension’s shelf), is now coming to DVD. Universally reviled by critics and viewers alike, Darkness was slammed for being an unscary, derivative, incoherent mess. Needless to say, my hopes weren’t very high when I slipped the “unrated” version into my DVD player.
I never saw the theatrical release, but Dimension has been known to pull the old bait and switch — rumor has it that critics were shown a Rated-R version of Wes Craven’s Cursed (a movie I reviewed positively), and then paying audiences were presented with a watered-down PG-13 version (and the reaction was not kind). So I have no rate of comparison, but the version I saw of Darkness was not so bad. “Not so bad” does not a glowing endorsement make, but I didn’t find the film entirely dismal.
One thing the filmmakers do deliver on is the “darkness” — the majority of the scenes play with dark and light, and the gloomy bits are crisp and clear with nice, deep blacks while still clearly showing what’s going on in the action. There’s an especially effective scene in an underground subway terminal, showing the darkness “chasing” one of the hapless victims.
The story opens on a dysfunctional American family moving to Spain, where the patriarch (Iain Glen) spent his young childhood years. His father (Giancarlo Giannini), a doctor, still lives near the old familial home and helps get them settled. Lena Olin plays the mother, and Anna Paquin and Stephan Enquist round out the cast as the couple’s unhappy offspring. In fact, no one is happy in this movie — dour, sullen, and downright rude, this is one foul family. Their dispositions are not improved when the power in their new house keeps going out, plunging them into darkness again and again. When the ghosts start showing up, things go from bad to worse.
The story unfolds quite a bit like The Amityville Horror (a father seemingly possessed, the days of the week being counted down onscreen) and has elements of several other horror movies (the quiet, atmospheric creepiness of The Others; demonic architectural design ala the remakes of Thirteen Ghosts and Toolbox Murders; and The Sixth Sense, with a little boy who’s all too sensitive to the undead’s demands). While it is undoubtedly derivative, as I watched the DVD I felt that director Jaume Balagueró did a fine job in applying his own style and twists to the tried and true ideas. As for the movie being incomprehensible, I completely disagree. You do have to watch it very carefully, but it all makes sense — even the ending, which so many of the reviews cited as being especially perplexing.
I’m not saying I want to watch Darkness again anytime soon, but seeing it once is fine. There are some truly creepy moments, and while they don’t always make sense, they are not out of character for a Spanish horror film — a lot of it is about creating atmosphere and evoking a flickering emotion. On that level, Darkness succeeds. As an overlooked or misunderstood gem, it does not. It’s worth a look; nothing more.
Additional release material on the DVD includes a Making-Of featurette and TV spots.
Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson