Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Terror/Violence and Language
Directed by: Jaume Balaguero
Written by: Jaume Balaguero & Fernando de Felipe
Starring: Anna Paquin, Lena Olin, Iain Glen, Giancarlo Giannini, Fele Martinez & Stephan Enquist
Storytime: I saw DARKNESS in the movie theater a few days after its Christmas release. Little 14-year-old me was gobbling up any possible horror movie I could go see with friends. That meant that my options were strictly limited to pretty much every PG-13 movie hitting theaters. It should be noted that my tastes weren’t nearly what they are now and I thought this movie was quite possibly the scariest thing ever. Little did I know the horrible, ugly, nostalgia-shattering truth. DARKNESS is an early film from Jaume Balaguero (who notably directed the first two [REC]s and SLEEP TIGHT and not so notably helmed THE NAMELESS). Dimension originally picked up DARKNESS for release in 2002 and then shelved the film for two years before releasing a shortened PG-13 cut into theaters on Christmas 2004. While the movie boasts an eerie atmosphere and a few spooky images, it never comes together as a coherent story populated by believable characters.
A family has moved into an isolated house in the middle of the Spanish countryside. Little do they know that dark and mysterious stuff took place within the walls of their new cozy home. Forty years ago, an occult sacrifice was attempted with six children being murdered and one escaping. Now, something evil (of course) is in the home and lurks in the dark. When the young son of the family, Paul, finds himself being targeted by the mysterious force. His teenage sister, Regina, becomes suspicious of possible abuse from her parents. Those suspicions lead to something darker when their mother appears to be uncaring and her father is quickly going off the deep end. With an approaching eclipse and a ticking clock, Regina must solve the house’s mystery before another sacrifice is attempted…but this time with her family as possible victims.
DARKNESS has a couple of good ideas, but fails to properly execute them. You can tell that there’s a good movie trying to break out of this mediocre mess. Flashes of it appear in a few striking images or neat moments. One of which is the darkness itself being alive and physically able move objects/cause harm when the power is out. That’s pretty cool stuff. Another decent concept is that darkness can even go as far as imitating people around it to convince gullible idiots to turn off the lights around them so it can kill(?), devour(?), consume(?) them? It’s never made clear. Which is where this movie has major problems. The plot doesn’t make a lick of sense and you can tell that early Jaume Balaguero was heavily imitating other (more successful) horror films. These echoes remind one of THE SHINING (in title cards announcing the day), POLTERGEIST (the child being terrorized by a toy), and even, AMITYVILLE HORROR (the unhinged father literally digging into the house). I was hoping that the PG-13 cut (which is 14 minutes shorter than the original R-rated cut a.k.a. the “Unrated” Version) had been heavily butchered. Having finally seen the Unrated Version, I can say that the only differences between both versions are a few drops of blood, some filler, and a number of F-bombs.
The story of DARKNESS may be an unfocused narrative mess, but the characters are just bland. Anna Paquin isn’t exactly known for being an amazing actress, but she fills the role of stereotypical rebellious teenager in this film. Lena Olin is wooden as the mother, using no recognizable human emotions. Meanwhile, Giancarlo Giannini shows up for a couple of scenes as the exposition-spewing grandfather. The worst performance comes from Iain Glen though. He may be great in GAME OF THRONES now, but in 2002, he seemed to be imitating Jack Nicholson in THE SHINING and comes off as more laughably annoying than frightening.
The biggest sin that DARKNESS commits is that it’s over stylized past the point of being scary. Complete with tons of useless shaky cam, occasional slow motion, and fast editing, it seems like the film is trying to compensate for its lack of emotions and creativity by using every possible camera trick in the book to aggravating effect. With all my complaints about the film, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find a handful of positive qualities in it. Aside from occasionally neat concepts, there are a few eerie images in this film that no amount of shaky camera work could soil. Besides that, there is a creepy atmosphere to this film as well as a cool ending. It’s enough to make you wish that these good qualities weren’t squandered away on such a jumbled script that seems half-finished.
Is DARKNESS nearly as scary as I remember it being when I was 14 years old? Not at all. In fact, this movie is pretty bad in a lot of ways. The performances are terrible from everyone and the screenplay doesn’t make a lick of sense. Not to mention that the whole film has a severe case of style over substance. However, DARKNESS does have an ooky spooky atmosphere that seems far too good for this material. Aside from that, there are also a couple of interesting (though unfocused) ideas as well as a solid eerie ending. It all amounts to a middle-of-the-road effort though. Nothing comes together in a satisfying way. Instead, you’re left with some good qualities, some major problems, and a film that you really won’t know what to make of by its conclusion. DARKNESS is a mediocre mess that could be promising if someone were to retool the script and remake the whole damn film.