The Darkness (2016)
May 13, 2016
Shayne Armstrong, Shane Krause, Greg McLean
Kevin Bacon, Radha Mitchell, David Mazouz
The Taylor family appears to exemplify the American Dream: Good looking mom and dad with two kids, one boy and one girl (of course). Patriarch Peter (Kevin Bacon) makes bank as department head of a huge design firm; they live in a picturesque house in a classy section of Los Angeles. But like many paradigms of suburbia, this family has a litany of difficult issues swirling just below the surface; there’s autism, anorexia, adultery, and alcoholism—and we’ve just barely scratched the surface. Beyond this juxtaposition of public image vs. private reality, there’s not much going on in The Darkness; any postulations regarding subtext seemed more like an effort on my part to find something deeper that, unfortunately, just isn’t there.
The Darkness is your standard haunted house movie with a creepy kid kicker. We’ve seen it in The Shining, Poltergeist, Sinister, The Other Side of the Door, and on and on. It’s based on the idea that children are somehow more aware of supernatural phenomenon than adults; the downside, of course, is that they’re more susceptible to nefarious otherworldly manipulations. In The Darkness, integral creepy kid Michael Taylor (played by David Mazouz) also has autism; in this context, it’s like a super antennae and amplifier, making him simply irresistible to demonic entities. The use of autism as a plot device might be problematic; while some may appreciate the attention given to the condition in a major film, others may find it exploitive. Of course, people go to horror movies to get spooked, not to examine societal complexities.
The Darkness was written by Shayne Armstrong, Shane Krause, and Greg McLean (who also directed); this may explain why the film feels so bloated yet ineffective: It could very well be a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. They throw every established horror motif in near rapid fire succession without offering innovations to any of them. The inclusion of the Anasazi, a tribe of “ancient ones” thought to be ancestors of the modern Pueblo Indians of Colorado, feels like a fresh angle, but like the other elements, it simply gets lost in the quagmire. They tip-toe into sci-fi territory, referring to the Anasazi as “Star People” (did you see that episode of Ancient Aliens?), but then just as quickly snap back into ho-hum haunted house horror.
Ultimately, the film’s villains are too nebulous to convey any sustainable sense of dread; we’re given no explanation as to their origins or motives, and there are simply too many disparate elements to establish a clear conclusion. Do the evil manifestations want to steal a child or destroy the world? Seriously, I’d like to know! And while I’m hardly the type who needs a plotline delivered on a silver platter, I would have appreciated more insight from the filmmaker, at least so I could better understand their intentions.
I have no doubt that Kevin Bacon will one day be considered a National Treasure, but fans hoping this will be his triumphant return to horror will be disappointed. Peter Taylor doesn’t have the compassion of David Labraccio from Flatliners, the conviction of Tom Witzky from Stir of Echoes, and certainly lacks the madcap gumption of Valentine McKee from Tremors. He’s supposed to be flawed, but he doesn’t even show a sliver of the restrained criminality we saw from Sebastian Caine in Hollow Man. It has nothing to do with Bacon’s abilities; the character simply lacks appropriate depth. As far as acting goes, the unexpected standout of this film is Paul Reiser, who plays Bacon’s asshole boss, effectively channeling all the sleaziness of Carter Burke from Aliens.
The Darkness can be credited for exposing a sinister side of modern family life; the way pressures to make money destroys unity, for example, and how the desire to sweep “embarrassing” personal weaknesses under the rug only delays an inevitable day of reckoning. The family was clearly in a downward spiral before their encounter with interdimensional phantoms (or robots, or werewolves, or whatever) but the ensuing battle represents their last-ditch effort to salvage a life together.
I have no problem with the film’s maudlin moments, understanding that as horror becomes more mainstream, there’s a market for this kind of “diet” genre offering. It can’t be fairly compared to a hardcore R-rated chiller like, say, Hostel. But I can appreciate a well-made film that delivers a familiar catharsis without sending me into the bowels of the human psyche. Still, it’s hard to believe that McLean, the man who shocked and enthralled us with Wolf Creek, didn’t steer The Darkness into, well, more darkness! A well-placed jump-scare will always get a reaction, but there’s nothing truly compelling to anchor the audience here. And there’s no identifiable takeaway at the film’s conclusion—except maybe not to pick up rocks.