DARKNESS – DVD review

I love a good, scary ghost story. Unfortunately, “Darkness” is nothing like a good, scary ghost story.

A good ghost story or haunted house story would be something like “The Uninvited” (1944), “The Haunting” (1963), “The Legend of Hell House” (1973), “The Exorcist” (1973), “Alien” (1979), “The Shining” (1980), “Poltergeist” (1982), “The Others” (2001), or “The Ring” (2002). Yes, I continue to see “Alien” as a haunted house story even though it’s set in outer space and uses a space creature rather than a ghost. Same difference.

The thing about “Darkness” is that it uses bits and pieces from all these better films in a vain attempt to create a uniqueness of its own. But it doesn’t succeed in doing much more than reminding us how many better movies on the subject have already been made.

Before we begin, though, a word about the “unrated” version of the movie I reviewed. As you know, “unrated” simply means the film was never submitted to the motion-picture ratings board. Buena Vista’s Dimension Films bought the North American distribution rights to this 2002 movie and then didn’t release it until 2004, after they had edited it to get a PG-13 rating and, presumably, a bigger audience. Now, the folks at BV are releasing it on DVD both in its original form (the unedited and unrated version we have here) and in its PG-13 theatrical-release form. The differences, as far as I can tell, are a reinsertion of fourteen minutes in the unrated version, 102 minutes vs. 88 minutes, and a widescreen format in the unrated version vs. a fullscreen format in the PG-13 version.

So, what is contained in the additional fourteen minutes? I couldn’t tell you because I have never seen the edited version. What I can say is that the unrated version contains no nudity, no sex, and very little blood or gore. There are a few profane words and a couple of scenes that might be fairly intense for younger viewers, but, really, the “unrated” designation would seem to be as much a marketing gimmick as anything else. I prefer calling it the “original” version because it had not yet been altered in story content or screen size.

“Darkness” is a Spanish production directed by Jaume Balaguero, whose most celebrated previous film was another thriller, “The Nameless,” that was just about as wanting as this one. “Darkness” is about an American family who move into a big, old, isolated house in the Spanish countryside where spooky things begin to happen. Unfortunately, none of it is very frightening, which is supposed to be the point of these kind of films, no?

I have a three-part theory about scary movies; not a very unique theory, I admit, but one I’ll share with you. In order for a movie to be scary, we first have to be interested in the main characters. If we don’t care about them, we can’t be afraid for them, we can’t worry about their safety. It’s why most slasher films are not scary. We don’t know one character from another, so we don’t care when they die; indeed, we look forward to their deaths as the only reason for watching the movie. Second, we have to believe that the events of the story could really happen. No real tension or suspense can be generated if we don’t accept that what’s going on seems real. If the events appear improbable or preposterous, we have a comedy on our hands, intentional or not. Third, there is a difference between startling an audience and actually scaring them. Anybody can stand behind a door, jump out, yell “Boo,” and startle someone. That is quite a different thing from producing a feeling of genuine terror.

“Darkness” fails on all three counts. First, its American family remain largely distanced from us, unsympathetic. The father, Mark, is played by Iaian Glen as a brooding semi-psycho given to raging fits of choking and temper. We can see from the outset he may not be a nice fellow. The mother, Maria, is played Lena Olin as a woman in denial that anything is wrong with her husband or their new house. The daughter, Regina, is played by Anna Paquin. She is the star of the show because hers is the most-recognizable name and she has the most screen time. Yet we don’t really get to know her or care about her, either. She never strikes one as an authentic person with human feelings; she’s just another cardboard cutout going through the motions. And the young son, Paul, played by Stephan Enquist, is a cipher, a one-dimensional nonentity who could be the same child in any number of these horror outings. The only other characters of any consequence are the grandfather, Albert, played by Giancarlo Giannini, and Regina’s boyfriend, Carlos, played by Fele Martinez. They do show some signs of color and life, but until late in the story they have little part in the proceedings. How can we care what happens to any of these folks?

Second, there’s isn’t a credible moment in the story. Why do they move into the house in the first place, leaving America to come to Spain? We’re told briefly that it has something to do with the father’s new teaching job, yet we never see him go to work. We see the daughter Regina swimming for her new school’s swim team, then we see her in a bathtub, and then we notice that it’s raining a lot. Wouldn’t we naturally figure that water would have something to do with later events? No, water has nothing to do with anything else. The lights continue to go off at odd times, yet an electrician tells the father that nothing is wrong with the house’s wiring. Does the father seek another opinion? No, he goes into a tirade, cursing the electrician. The young son comes to see things, other children, in the house, but no one believes him. Shades of “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” The architect who was asked to design the house forty years earlier suddenly figures out the house’s dark secret, coincidentally at the very minute the new family moves in. When everyone else leaves the house one night after a series of bizarre happenings, Regina choses to remain alone in the old place. Why would she stay there alone if she didn’t have to?

The movie finally degenerates into a hopeless mass of mumbo-jumbo, silliness, and incoherence. Characters behave inconsistently; nothing is connected to anything else; things happen for no apparent reason; and the meaning of the title, “Darkness,” is never explained in anything but the vaguest, most pretentiously metaphysical way.

Third, we’re given a few shocks, but there is no suspense. The movie begins with quick, fleeting glances into somebody’s memory of the house, a place where apparently a group of children had once been harmed some forty years before. These glimpses are punctuated by loud noises on the soundtrack, designed to startle, not to scare. Later, we get passing glimpses of dim shadows, things moving in the darkness, but they are less mysterious than they are simply odd. These tricks of noise and quick edits are used throughout the film, lessening their impact each time they’re employed.

Worse still, “Darkness” borrows from just about every other horror movie you can name, reminding us of so much better material. There’s “something” under the bed that only the kid recognizes (“Poltergeist”). Children appear as ghosts (“The Shining”). The father gets loonier as the movie goes on (“The Shining”). Fierce imagery is flashed across the screen (“The Ring”). Specters are seen as fleeting shadows (“Signs”). Quiet moments provide momentary reprieves (“The Others”). An old photograph seems to hold a clue to the goings on (“The Others”). A hidden room may hold dark secrets (“The Legend of Hell House”). A mysterious man stands in the dark outside the house (“The Exorcist”). Demons and demonology are suddenly thrust into the plot (“The Omen,” “The Exorcist: The Beginning,” and dozens more). The clichés are endless, and the events are telegraphed well in advance. Not even the ending works. Its ambiguity is meant to make us use our imagination (“The Shining”), but in “Darkness” it only serves to make the film seem unfinished. Like, where’s the sequel? The climax is supposed to be a surprise (“The Sixth Sense”), but it’s mainly a cop-out and a disappointment.

I do give the film and the filmmakers high marks on two counts: It’s well photographed and it’s well intentioned. Even in the unrated version, the director (who also cowrote the screenplay) seldom resorts to pure bloodletting to shock us, so the movie is at least a step above most of the slasher genre.

Yet “Darkness” fails to reach the heights of serious horror. Mostly, it’s about things going bump in the night that are never explained. Or when they are explained, they make no sense. The movie isn’t so scary as its characters are just plain creepy. In this case, creepy alone is not enough.

Video:
True to form, the worse the film, the better it looks. Buena Vista transferred this one to disc at a very high bit rate and a very wide anamorphic, or enhanced, screen ratio. The actual dimensions measure very close to the film’s theatrical-exhibition ratio of 2.35:1, with colors that are deep and solid. Blacks strongly accentuate the rest of the hues, and grain is a nonissue. There are a few instances of wavy lines and a very slight glassiness about the picture, but they are nothing really.

Audio:
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sonics complement the excellence of the video. Some very deep bass and some impressive dynamics show up from the very start. There are good surround effects, too, starting with a compulsory thunderstorm; this is, after all, a horror movie. Rain continues to haunt the rear channels throughout the movie, along with lightning and thunder, which I admit gets a bit wearying after a spell. Musical ambiance is also well conveyed. So, good picture and sound punctuate a bad movie. Seems a waste, but anyone renting or buying the disc won’t be disappointed by its technical qualities.

Extras:
There’s not much in the extras department. The main item is a four-minute featurette, “Darkness Illuminated: Behind the Scenes of Darkness,” wherein the director and stars tell us what they were trying to achieve in the film. Needless to say, they were trying to scare us, and it didn’t work. Oh, well. Then, there are Buena Vista’s usual chintzy number of scene selections, in this case thirteen. At least it’s a magical number. And there are a few Sneak Peeks at other Dimension Film titles and a widescreen theatrical trailer and widescreen teaser trailer included. English and French are the spoken language choices, with French and Spanish subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Shots:
One thing I can say about “Darkness”: It’s the only movie I saw this year to rival “Exorcist: The Beginning” for sheer incomprehensible nonsense. I realize that’s not much of a distinction, but it’s the nicest thing I can think of to say about this mostly non-scary horror film. The horror, of course, is having to watch it, which, I’m happy to say, you don’t have to do unless you’re determined to watch every horror film ever made–good, bad, or indifferent. In that case, who can stop you?

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