Based on the novel "Sheep," by Simon Magnin, "The Dark" presents us with a colorful variation on the old "Poltergeist" plot. When an estranged couple's pre-teen daughter drowns off the rugged coast of Wales, an ancient Celtic legend gives the mother hope—especially when the long-deceased daughter of a religious cult leader appears again, apparently freed from her own watery grave by the newcomer's plunge. "One of the living for one of the dead," the strange girl intones, and so Adele (Maria Bello, "A History of Violence") becomes obsessed with finding the key to bringing her own daughter back via the same means.
Dad (Sean Bean, "The Lord of the Rings") lives in an old coastal house on a cliff overlooking the sea, and mom Adele had just brought their daughter for a visit. It's an idyllic but harsh landscape, and naturally it comes with a flock of sheep, an attic room full of keys that don't seem to match any locks, and a creepy handyman named Dafydd (Maurice Roeves). It actually starts out promising enough, with dramatic location photography and music by Edmund Butt that moves in swells like the sea itself. And you know, the whole thing about Celtic religion coming to 21st-century life is appealing, especially in a land known for its mystical Iron Age stones with markings that seem to bear witness to the very secrets of time. But it doesn't take long before the sinister mood starts to feel as synthetic as polyester and, after it starts to get old fast, about as stylish.
Director John Fawcett couldn't be more heavy-handed in playing up startling moments—some of which seem appropriate and logical, while many are just cheap scares. An example of the latter? A quick cut from a dark interior to a bright exterior with an equally quick jump in volume, though nothing menacing is in the narrative content. Now, a little of that would be fine, because he works the scare tactics better earlier in the film. But there's too much of that and way too much of the shopworn device of Adele's inexplicable "visions" of past traumas with her daughter and glimpses into the past of this place—bright flashes of recognition that really don't make any sense if you bother to ask yourself, why only her? In other words, don't think too hard or long about the dynamics of this other-dimensional "Poltergeist" world where the dead can still be reclaimed and a mom sets out to do so, because the more you think about it, the less sense it makes. There's nothing in the backstory that makes it stand up, and the pacing is unnecessarily plodding at first, then hurried in Act III. We're 26 minutes into a 93-minute film when the first death occurs, with far too much time spent on setting up a one-note horror rather than peeling away layer after layer of horrific detail that would eventually add up to one major, shocking conclusion.
I've not read the book, but it seems like a bait-and-switch to tease the audience with the prospect of ancient religion providing the mystery and horror thrills, and then substitute a Jim Jones-style cult leader from a mere 50 years ago. Even the ancient-looking stone obelisk that sets on a cliff is said to have been erected by mid-20th century zealots. Oh really? And the moral of the story goes something this: don't buy an isolated house that was once inhabited by a religious fanatic who tried to invoke an ancient Celtic legend—one of the living for one of the dead—by encouraging his entire flock to jump off the cliff in a mass suicide.
Christian Sebaldt's cinematography and the Isle of Man and Devon, where "The Dark" was filmed, are the most interesting parts of this film—though Bello and Bean do manage to turn in some fine performances despite having little chance to really do so. Mostly, you walk away from this wanting more. You want more Celtic legend to enter into it, because this place feels ancient. You want more backstory than those goofy flash-moments that Adele gets which would illuminate the relationship between her, James (Bean), and their daughter, Sarah (Sophie Stuckey). And you most certainly want more information about the relationship between the religious fanatic (Richard Elfyn) and his daughter, Ebrill (Abigail Stone). With none of that coming, you end up wishing for more shots of the Isle of Man and Wales, because after a time it's the only thing that legitimately takes your breath away.
Video: The video does justice to the gorgeous scenery and photography, with good clarity and color saturation despite the Isle of Man's infamous dreary, Seattle-like light. There's hardly any grain, and the shots at sea-level or underwater are every bit as superb as the aerial opening and frequent shots of the island's cliffs. Much of "The Dark" is shot in near-darkness, and those scenes are as sharp as the daytime exteriors. The picture is mastered in High Definition and presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen.
Audio: The audio is a booming English Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English and French. As with the video, it does justice to the symphonic score.
Extras: The only extra is an alternate ending, which turns out to be an only slightly less happy and equally confusing one as the ending that Fawcett settled on.
Bottom Line: It's harder, I think, for a filmmaker to elevate a film in the horror genre than it is comedy or action, and that's because the conventions seem more prescriptive. You're stuck with the gradual revealing of a horror or menace, and the cultivation of a cinematic Petrie dish in which the characters' fears can grow and grow until they spill over onto the audience. But you do have to fully reveal that horror eventually, and you do have to create a credibly tense atmosphere. Fawcett gets it half right, but tries way too hard to compensate for a script that just doesn't have enough small horrors along the way to that one climactic one. And he uses far too many camera movements and ranges, so that you begin to feel like your eyes are forever trying to adjust. In the end, this just doesn't surprise enough, and when it does surprise, it's unfortunately in the area of logic.