The Darkness (2016) / D: Greg McLean / 92m
Cast: Kevin Bacon, Radha Mitchell, David Mazouz, Lucy Fry, Matt Walsh, Jennifer Morrison, Parker Mack, Paul Reiser, Ming-Na Wen
In The Darkness, a family returns home from a trip to the Grand Canyon, unaware that their autistic son has released an ancient supernatural force that had been imprisoned in a secret Anasazi location. Once the feuding Taylors – dad Peter (Bacon), mum Bronny (Mitchell), teenage daughter Stephanie (Fry), and son Michael (Mazouz) – get settled back into the routine of sniping at each other and generally ignoring the fact that their combined behaviours are slowly tearing the family apart, the inevitable strange things start to happen. First, the taps in the kitchen turn on by themselves…
… and with that, any aspirations to be or do anything different for the remainder of the movie goes so far out of the window you’re not even sure if it’s landed anywhere. The Darkness is a shockingly bad amalgam of horror tropes and the supposed best bits from other horror movies. But in the main it’s Poltergeist (1982) that gets ripped off the most here, from the American Indian connection to the spiritual healer recommended to Peter by his boss (Reiser), and all the way to the portal that opens up in Michael’s bedroom.
With the script having been cobbled together by director Greg McLean, Shayne Armstrong and Shane Krause, the movie ambles along on creative life support before it reaches the end and gives up the ghost entirely. Along the way it attempts to add depth by giving the Taylors their own personal demons to face as well as the ones formerly held at bay by Anasazi rituals. Peter once had an affair (though of course it didn’t mean anything), Bronny has a history of alcohol abuse, and Stephanie is bulimic (though one trip to the doctor’s seems to sort that one out). Personal demons, supernatural demons – what has this poor misguided family done to deserve all this? (What’s that? The supernatural demons are metaphors? Oh, right…)
There’s no shortage of cringeworthy moments in The Darkness (though the demons going by the collective name of Jenny is probably the best/worst), and the cast appear to have given up quite early on – Bacon in particular looks like he’s wondering if he could drop a few scenes and thereby lessen his involvement – but it’s McLean’s lack of focus on both the performances and the material that hurts the movie the most. With the script on only nudging terms with credibility – and yes, this is a horror movie, and yes, credibility is often the first thing to go when one is being made – it still needed a firmer hand at the controls, but McLean, now a long, long way from the glory days of Wolf Creek (2005) just lets the movie drift to a unsatisfactory finish that is at least in keeping with how unsatisfactory the rest of the movie has been.
Rating: 3/10 – meh horror that lacks commitment from all concerned, and offers nothing new… at all; daft, confusing, muddled, and dramatically inert for long stretches, The Darkness will make you feel uneasy – but, sadly, not for the right reasons.
Lights Out (2016) / D: David F. Sandberg / 81m
Cast: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Maria Bello, Billy Burke, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Andi Osho
Martin (Bateman) is a young boy whose stepfather is killed in a very violent fashion. His mother, Sophie (Bello), already on medication for depression, is acting strangely. She talks to someone called Diana (Vela-Bailey) who doesn’t appear to be real. But one night Martin sees the hand of an unnatural figure in his mother’s room. Scared, he finds it difficult to sleep properly, and instead, falls asleep at school. When this happens for a third time, and the school can’t get hold of Sophie, they contact his older sister, Rebecca (Palmer). Rebecca left home years before, shortly after her father (Sophie’s first husband) decided to leave for good himself. Rebecca looks after Martin, but thanks to the intervention of Child Services, isn’t allowed to do so full-time.
With the aid of her would-be boyfriend Bret (DiPersia), Rebecca finds herself quickly coming to terms with the fact that Diana is real – desite having died many years before – and needing to do something about the wraith’s deadly attacks on Martin and herself. Armed with the knowledge that Diana’s attacks only take place in the dark thanks to the extreme heliophobia she suffered from when she was alive, Rebecca and Martin take steps to protect themselves, and to get Sophie to admit that her childhood friendship with Diana is allowing the spectre to exist. But Diana has other plans…
Expanded on from his 2013 short movie of the same name, David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out is an efficient, no-nonsense horror thriller that takes its basic premise – lights on: no ghost, lights off: there it is – and finds various clever ways of keeping the central conceit from getting too stale too quickly, even at eighty-one minutes. While Diana’s back story only partially explains her reason for haunting Sophie and her family, and Diana herself isn’t quite as frightening as she’s meant to be, nevertheless, Sandberg succeeds in making her as credible a character (in the circumstances) as can be, and manages to achieve the same success with Sophie, Martin and Rebecca. Sandberg is helped by strong performances all round – Palmer is particularly good as Rebecca – and a script by Eric Heisserer that does its best in avoiding the pitfalls of dishing up too many horror movie clichés (though it does serve up two unsuspecting police officers as victims of Diana’s wrath, just to keep the momentum going).
The movie is strong on atmosphere, with certain scenes having a clammy, claustrophobic feel to them that isn’t entirely to do with the characters being in confined spaces, and Marc Spicer’s cinematography makes the darkness that surrounds the characters for most of the movie as threatening as possible thanks to some very good lighting choices and some expert framing. The look of the movie is of primary importance in how scary it is, and Sandberg provides viewers with a mix of generic visuals and heightened situations that is surprisingly uncomfortable to watch at times. It’s not entirely successful – Bret is a seriously one-note character, the basement of Sophie’s house conveniently reveals a secret that otherwise would never have been known, a confrontation with Sophie about Diana (and her death) features some very stilted and ill-chosen dialogue – but on the whole it’s a far better movie than expected.
Rating: 7/10 – a horror movie that dares to be different, and succeeds for the most part, Lights Out has a creepy central premise that’s handled well and makes for some effective jump scares (for a change); inevitably, a sequel has already been greenlit, but this is an effective, self-contained movie that stands on its own and proves that intelligence and horror can go hand in hand, and not just wave to each other in passing.