Written by: Shayne Armstrong, Shane Krause, and Greg Mclean
Directed by: Greg Mclean
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Radha Mitchell, and David Mazouz
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Evil comes home.
The ubiquity of Blumhouse Productions—which has practically grown into a vast, sprawling empire that encompasses film, books, and even a web outlet—perhaps makes the outfit an obvious boogeyman for the horror genre. On the surface, it’s tempting to criticize its prodigious output as a reflection of a Hollywood assembly line cranking out one product after another, especially when so many seem to be riffs on the same boilerplate. In a climate where auteurs are supposedly drowned out by machines (see: the misguided, perpetual discussion about Marvel Studios), Blumhouse should be ample evidence for the prosecution.
However, in his defense, head honcho Jason Blum has also cultivated a prodigious amount of visionary talent, from established directors (James Wan, Rob Zombie) to underappreciated ones (Mike Flanagan, Bryan Bertino). Falling somewhere in the middle of this spectrum is Greg Mclean, a filmmaker who needs no introduction to genre gurus but perhaps hasn’t quite made the leap into mainstream consciousness. It follows, then, that the Aussie director’s stateside debut The Darkness splits the difference between Blumhouse’s more daring, auteur-driven output and its more familiar, formulaic mold. While it’s based on a script developed by McClean, there’s the nagging sense that it’s a little too restrained by a cliché formula that only allows for the occasional wrinkle or flourish.
Familiarity hangs thick, even if the setup here is an inversion by McClean’s standards, as a group of travelers begin in the wilderness (well, the “wilderness” that is the Grand Canyon) before carrying trouble back home. In this case, it’s the Taylors, a family of four enjoying a vacation that’s mostly without incident, save for their autistic son Mikey’s (David Mazouz) excursion into a hidden part of the canyon. Even this seems innocuous, as he only manages to pocket some stones as a souvenir before heading home. The only problem is that they’re actually cursed runes that summon ancient Native American spirits to wreak supposedly apocalyptic havoc.
But, you know, they really just end up wreaking the same sort of havoc that demons always inflict upon poor bastards in their homes. It starts with Mikey acting more bizarre than usual: he’s now fiercely protective of the backpack housing his stones, and he claims to have made a new, imaginary friend named Jenny. Strange noises abound, and the neighbors’ dog is constantly barking for no good reason. The Taylors’ daughter, Stephanie (Lucy Fry), is convinced her brother is up to his usual mischievous behavior, at least until she begins seeing shadows and strange hand-prints. It’s a typical assortment of haunted house parlor tricks helmed with a slick confidence by McClean, who emphasizes a creeping terror with deliberate, prowling camerawork punctuated by an occasional jolt (one even subtly toys with expectations).
As The Darkness unfolds, it does so with the overwhelming (or perfectly whelming?) sense that it’s a fine enough exercise in what has become a crowded, somewhat stale genre. Mclean does what he can to enliven it almost through sheer force of will. At some point, the typical domestic turmoil clichés typical of this genre start to hilariously compound: it’s not enough that Mikey’s autism causes a natural (and understandable) tension, but it turns out Peter (Kevin Bacon) has a stressful, demanding job that’s kept him away from this house. His wife, Bronny (Radha Mitchell), is suspicious of his secretive phone calls in other rooms thanks to a previous affair; meanwhile, she’s a recovering alcoholic who begins to retreat in the bottle as the demons encroach upon her family. And if that weren’t enough, Stephanie is also hiding an eating disorder—eventually, I just started to assume that someone was probably hiding a dead body in the basement too.
Indeed, the Taylors aren’t your typical family found in this sort of thing. It’s almost as if someone wondered what it might be like if everyone in the Amityville house had turned into a raging asshole just like George Lutz, as this bunch is constantly at each other’s throats. One stretch of the movie essentially settles into a rhythm that alternates between quiet, deceptively serene scenes with unhinged outbursts. At least three sequences in the film end with Peter learning or witnessing that his kids have done something fucked up, be it attempting to kill a pet, setting a fire, or literally pummeling their mother. It almost borders on a turbo-charged parody of this genre, but it somehow feels just weird and mean enough not to plunge over that edge.
For a brief moment, The Darkness feels like it might be a trashy delight, as the family members’ various issues and the paranormal phenomena hold the potential for a gnarly, high-strung brew. A legitimate edginess begins to form, if only because the outbursts feel so out-of-left-field, while demonic heralds take the form of wolves, snakes, coyotes, and other animals. Some sequences—such as a nighttime attack involving a dog—feel intrusive and weird enough that The Darkness almost ascends to a plane of deranged, mean-spirited fun (or at least comes as close as it can within its PG-13 parameters).
However, the minute Peter’s boss (a delightfully prickish Paul Reiser) and his wife mention a spiritual healer, you know this is headed for some Poltergeist shit. In a somewhat disappointing (but completely predictable) turn of events, it does exactly that, retreating so far as to introduce a medium (Alma Martinez) and her granddaughter (Ilza Rosario), who promptly assume the Zelda Rubinstein position. There’s certainly a more disheartening racial dynamic at play here, though, as the pair feels like they’re but a token presence, here to clean up this white family’s mess on behalf of a Native American culture that’s otherwise demonized as malicious shadows and boogeymen. It’s too bad that this intriguing mythology is reduced to such an incidental backstory half-heartedly delivered via web searches and Youtube videos. I was much more fascinated by these ancient beliefs than I was by watching a couple of suburbanites bicker over a bottle of booze.
That The Darkness retreats to a bunch of digital sound and fury during its climax is also hardly surprising, but it’s no less unsatisfactory that its backstory remains so underdeveloped and mined only for a couple of evocative, demonic glimpses. By the time it gives itself over to genre expectations, solidifies itself as yet another variation on Poltergeist, only it’s done without the style, with, and verve of Insidious. It’d be easy to joke that The Darkness is at least a better Poltergeist remake than the actual remake, and I suppose it is, if only because its unique mythology allows it to stray ever so slightly. In many ways, however, it’s much like last year’s dull retread, at least in the sense that it’s a familiar story that mostly stays afloat thanks to the personalities and good will engendered by its lead actors. It’s difficult not to be somewhat invested in a haunted house movie involving Bacon and Mitchell, a couple of strong performers who make this umpteenth riff worthwhile.
What you never quite feel for them is any sense of fear or danger since The Darkness never strays far enough from the course. Even a briefly threatened bittersweet, downer of an ending is quickly reneged, resulting in a film that telegraphs its own happy ending when one of its characters literally insists the family “deserves a happy ending.” Ultimately, it’s a slight disappointment for Mclean, whose edges have been effectively dulled here. This is not to say he’s obligated to deliver grisly, ultra-bleak material in the order of Wolf Creek each time out—it’s just that The Darkness doesn’t quite deliver on its own, fleetingly manic energy once it settles into its mold.
On the Blumhouse spectrum, it eventually veers towards the company’s blander, more mechanical output, and does little to disavow anyone of the notion that this studio is somewhat responsible for a glut of generic horror movies. Churning one of these out on occasion should be forgivable in theory, but having Mclean at the helm makes this misfire seem especially disappointing.
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