[Note: This post contains spoilers.]
Bad movies can be fun. One needn’t look further than the enduring cult popularity of 1990s film-riffing phenomenon Mystery Science Theater 3000, or the proliferation of midnight screenings featuring cinematic cheese from the classic (Plan 9 from Outer Space) to the contemporary (The Room). However, for a film to cross the threshold from not-good to amusingly terrible demands an element of artistic catastrophe. It isn’t sufficient for a feature to be merely shoddy: It must be tragic in its mesmerizing awfulness. The difference is akin to that between a stalled clunker sitting in the driveway and a spectacular twenty-car pile up in the middle of a six-lane expressway.
The Darkness is, regrettably, the former sort of film: bad, but not transcendentally bad. It is a work so relentlessly banal in its failures that one can’t work up the enthusiasm to despise it. Its worst sin is nicking 92 minutes of the viewer’s life, draining them away like some dreary cinematic vampire. Australian writer-director Greg McLean is perhaps best known for helming the vicious serial killer feature Wolf Creek, a film whose transgressive ugliness has made it something of a divisive cult landmark in the annals of 21st-century horror. Its moral worth (or lack thereof) aside, Wolf Creek is unquestionably a frightening film, one in which tension is sharpened through ruthlessly offhanded eruptions of violence. The Darkness, meanwhile, is like the dismal mirror image of McLean’s earlier film: a torpid blob of anti-drama that flails about without any notion of what the hell it is trying to accomplish or why.
The premise of the film is one of the more threadbare horror scenarios: A malevolent otherworldly entity invades the suburban domicile of a nuclear family and proceeds to wreak supernatural havoc. The clan in question here is the Taylors: architect dad Peter (Kevin Bacon); homemaker mom Bronny (Radha Mitchell); older teen daughter Stephanie (Lucy Gry); and tween autistic son Mikey (David Mazouz). During a family vacation to the Southwestern U.S.—Los Angeles fills in unconvincingly for the Four Corners region—Mikey stumbles into a grotto where five smooth stones are arranged purposefully on a primeval altar. Carved with stylized animal petroglyphs, the rocks naturally draw the attention of the boy, who pockets them without much regard for the nearby cave painting depicting five sinister, shadowy figures.
Once the Taylors return home with Mikey’s plundered stones unknowingly stashed in their luggage, the usual haunted house phenomena ensue: fleeting shadows, weird noises, moving objects, spectral handprints, and so forth. Mikey is initially thought to be responsible for these occurrences, an assumption fueled in part by the boy’s even-stranger-than-usual behavior. At first he's just having conversations with an unseen companion named “Jenny,” but Mikey’s alarming habits soon escalate to include arson and violence against animals. Fortunately for the Taylors, some uncannily plot-specific YouTube videos helpfully explain their predicament. The trespassing spirits are in fact a quintet of Native American demons that can assume the form of a bison, coyote, crow, snake, and wolf. Bound to five sacred stones, the entities were known to the ancestral Puebloans as cruel child-snatchers. They are also purportedly connected to that people’s “mysterious disappearance.” (The film uses the discouraged moniker “Anasazi” to refer to the ancestral Puebloans, and lamentably but unsurprisingly distills the complex, disputed history of that culture’s rise and decline into a spooky Injun legend.)
This knowledge is actually for the viewer’s benefit, not the Taylors’, given that no one but Mikey is even aware that he is in possession of the magic devil rocks. The spirits terrorize the family haphazardly for what seems like hours and hours of screen time before the obligatory climactic exorcism. This is overseen by Latina mystic Teresa (Alma Martinez) and her granddaughter Gloria (Ilza Rosario), who convey the seriousness of the situation by furrowing their brows earnestly and murmuring in hushed terror about an evil presence. (It’s unclear whether the absence of actual Native American actors in the film is a slight or a blessing, given that the film rather lazily employs distorted Native culture solely for atmospheric purposes.) Ultimately, Peter makes a selfless sacrifice on his son’s behalf, and Mikey in turn rouses himself to action in order to banish the demons back to the indigenous netherworld from whence they came.
The Darkness’ problems are multitude, but its fundamental flaw is how poorly it executes the concept of dramatic escalation. Haunted house features normally follow a succinct, well-established outline: The paranormal disturbances start out small, and then gradually intensify until climaxing in an effects-laden ghostly confrontation of some sort. Improbably, McLean and co-scripters Shayne Armstrong and S.P. Krause manage to bungle this simple model. From the moment the Taylors return home from their vacation, the film slumps into a plodding succession of hackneyed shocks that lacks any sense of mounting urgency. The ultimate goal of the demons is apparently to lure Mikey away to their spirit realm, but one could never discern that from the slapdash array of supernatural parlor tricks they serve up. Even late in the film, the scares seem weirdly arbitrary: a humanoid shape rises up beneath Mikey’s bedsheets; shadowy arms grope forth from an ethereal portal; sooty handprints appear on Stephanie’s walls and clothes; Peter glimpses a hulking, demonic silhouette in a window. The result is aimless and formless, amounting to little more than horror movie gibberish.
What’s more, the film can’t be bothered to substantively develop any of the theoretically fertile concepts it halfheartedly tosses around. A venturous soul could make a case that The Darkness is a metaphorical reckoning for whites' archaeological plundering of Native sites, or even for the American genocide more broadly (à la The Shining), but there is precious little in the text to support such a reading. There’s a germ of potential in the fact that the family’s latent, thinly concealed rifts make their household ripe for exploitation by demonic forces. The notion of the suburban castle rotting from within is a hoary one in horror cinema, but Bronny adds a novel touch of karmic dread when she voices her suspicions that the family’s demonic tribulations are cosmic retribution for their sins. That’s about the extent of the film’s engagement with the concept, however. McLean merely uses the family’s personal problems—a confessed affair, alcoholism, an eating disorder, etc.—to provoke trite, soapy melodrama that distracts from the already desultory creepshow elements.
This is emblematic of the film’s exasperating, almost enervating lack of ambition. One can visualize a version of the film that focuses on the festering undercurrent of deception, mistrust, and bitterness that runs through the Taylors’ lives, and the spirits’ wicked manipulation of that weakness. Or a version that approaches its off-the-shelf horror conceit from Mikey's distinctive perspective as a young, neurologically atypical individual. Or a version that fully commits to a richly realized Native American ghost story that reflects real-world folkloric traditions. The Darkness is too dull-witted for such approaches, however, preferring to cynically utilize elements like autism and Native American culture to shore up its careless, cut-and-paste screenplay.
Truly, there’s not much of anything to recommend about the the film. Unsurprisingly, Bacon is the only performer who can make the bland screenplay’s emotional beats sound convincing, although the character he’s been handed is nebulous and relentlessly dull, as are the other family members. It certainly doesn’t help that McLean can’t seem to resolve who the protagonist actually is, or who is supposed to elicit the viewer's sympathy. This ambiguity doesn’t smell like a calculated choice, but rather like a product of sloppy screenwriting. The only unexpected and humanizing moment in the script is a third act pivot on the part of Peter’s boss (Paul Reiser), an overbearing creep who softens when he comprehends just how thoroughly undone Peter has become by his recent “family troubles."
Most of the film’s visuals are unremittingly anonymous, although the design of the demons is genuinely eerie. Loosely informed by vintage photographs of traditional ceremonial dress among the Native Americans of the Southwest, the entities' true forms resemble enormous, shaggy humanoids whose partly bestial, partly skeletal features always seem to be out of focus. (The demons faintly recall Evil’s towering, goat-headed minions in Time Bandits, to fine effect.) It’s a nice bit of unsettling practical costuming in an era when ghost stories lean overwhelmingly on computer effects.
With The Forest, The Other Side of the Door, and now The Darkness, 2016 is shaping up to be a banner year for crummy horror movies about white families being menaced by non-white occult forces. Granted, McLean’s film doesn’t traffic in the same unpleasant Othering as the former two features. (The lack of living Native Americans in The Darkness sort of precludes it from doing so.) The film’s racism (and ableism) is vaguely obnoxious rather than baldly offensive, but the most egregious insult to be found in The Darkness is the film's ineptness. Presented with such a forgettable dud of a horror picture, any filmgoer should be affronted that an hour and a half of their lives were wasted in such a manner.