Studio: Blumhouse Tilt
Director: Greg McLean
Writer: Greg McLean, Shayne Armstrong, S.P. Krause
Producer: Jason Blum, Bianca Martino, Matt Kaplan
Stars: Kevin Bacon, Radha Mitchell, Lucy Fry, David Mazouz, Ming-Na Wen, Jennifer Morrison, Matt Walsh, Paul Reiser
An autistic boy unwittingly disturbs a supernatural evil from Native American legend that haunts his troubled family.
Peter and Bronny Taylor have dealt with their autistic son Mikey’s behavioral issues before. But after the boy brings home a strange set of ceremonial stones found in a cave on a Grand Canyon getaway, problems in the Taylor household go from difficult to demonic.
When those stones came home, an ancient Anasazi evil came with them. These middle class family members formerly concerned with infidelity, alcoholism, and eating disorders now face supernatural strangeness peaking high at Katie/Micah levels of paranormal activity. To save Mikey from possession and to protect their teenage daughter Stephanie from torment, Peter and Bronny immerse themselves in the mystery cursing their family, hoping to destroy the darkness before it tears the Taylors apart.
“The Darkness” is a mostly run-of-the-mill mish-mash of vague Native American myths mixed with typical thriller tropes. At one time, its starting point may have been a creative take on haunted house horror populated by interestingly flawed people. But the movie is marred by the distinguishing characteristics of something that went through a wringer of rewrites and re-edits, paring it down into a predictable supernatural drama.
One sure sign of behind-the-scenes tinkering is a roster of characters who disappear and are forgotten with the frequency of NBC sitcoms during pilot season. The revolving door of unimportant support starts spinning from the get-go, as the Taylors’ vacation sees them joined by Gary and Joy Carter and their teenage son Andrew. I had to check IMDb for those names since the movie puts up no effort to make this trio memorable. Why are the Taylors on holiday with anyone else at all? Surely there is a more economical way for the script to provide backstory bits about local legends and Bronny’s bottle addiction than by adding three one-scene-and-done roles, right?
Except the cards that turn over as the movie rolls forward prove “The Darkness” started life as a much different beast where ancillary personalities probably mattered more. Paul Reiser and Ming-Na Wen, who appear as Peter’s boss Simon and Simon’s wife Wendy, are apt examples. Reiser and Wen are actors of some caliber, and anyone would be crazy to believe their agents allowed them to sign up specifically for six minutes of screentime playing parts whose only purpose is exposition.
Peek past the chopped up plot looking for shadows of what once was or what might have been, you can see the forgotten footprint of a character-driven drama that required real talent in their respective roles. The principal players all face individual demons in addition to the literal ones. Bronny lusts after vodka. Peter struggles to not be a repeat philanderer. Stephanie knows better than to put two fingers down her throat. Kevin Bacon, Radha Mitchell, Lucy Fry, and David Mazouz as Mikey have the presence to give these people the depth they deserve. “The Darkness” just doesn’t take that depth further than superficial skin.
What remains is a single-scene grandmother traumatized by a snake before vanishing, a nondescript neighbor with a dog more important than he is, and a couple of characters in the credits who I’m not even certain appear in the final film. Something definitely happened to change the structure of the story after contracts were signed and the camera started rolling.
This doesn’t make “The Darkness” confusing, though it does make it bland. The film is steadfast about straying away from uniqueness in favor of by-the-book boos and is determined to remind you repeatedly that you are watching a movie, not being consumed by believable fiction.
Every time a television appears onscreen, which is remarkably often, content always conveniently features cartoon ghosts, Godzilla film clips, or something else that makes thematic sense for a horror movie, yet no practical sense for realism. What is the likelihood that stock footage of atomic blast testing would randomly be playing on a hospital lobby TV?
As for those by-the-book boos, “The Darkness” dog-ears nearly all of the usual pages. Waking from a nightmare. Shadowy figures suddenly appearing in reflections. Tiptoeing through dark corridors. There’s even an internet research sequence to fill in blanks that Ming-Na Wen can’t cover in her serendipitous speech about a Hopi Indian seminar, as well as a pair of psychics who perform a “Poltergeist”/”The Exorcist”/”Insidious”/”You Name It” cleansing ritual during the climax.
Formulaic isn’t automatically unforgivable, and “The Darkness” isn’t either. Characters, the ones who stick around anyway, are initially interesting and portrayed engagingly. The performances, like the micro and macro storylines, simply aren’t afforded space to do anything but bare bones basics while ensuring rote beats are hit right on cue.
While it doesn’t earn a ranking on any “Best of” lists, “The Darkness” also doesn’t deserve a spot any “Worst of” ones. It is a mid-card movie where your mood at the time of viewing will influence whether you tolerate its trappings enough to find it passably entertaining, or merely become miffed at the missed opportunities to do something cleverly creative instead of conventionally cliché.
Review Score: 50