More so than any other genre, horror is really dependent on the technical execution of its filmmakers. After all, we’ve all seen countless stories about demons, psycho killers, and haunted houses that there’s little new ground in terror to cover, but if executed well can still be remarkably effective. However, The Darkness, the latest film from Greg McLean, best known as the director of Wolf Creek, lacks in story and execution, telling an incredibly derivative tale of a family haunted by spirits from beyond. With its story The Darkness travails into some sensitive territory about autism which may come across far worse than ever intended.
While on vacation near the Grand Canyon, Mikey (David Mazouz), the autistic son of Peter (Kevin Bacon) and Bronny Taylor (Radha Mitchell), discovers a set of engraved rocks in an abandoned cave, proceeding to take the stones with him when they return to suburban Los Angeles. Once back home, things start to get weird for the Taylor family – Joy finds herself relapsing and indulging in alcohol; Peter is tempted towards infidelity by a new assistant at work; and their daughter Stephanie (Lucy Fry) is even more temperamental than before. Meanwhile, Mikey’s behavior is becoming increasingly erratic – setting fires, speaking of an invisible friend named Jenny, and even going as far as to nearly kill his grandmother’s cat. The Taylor family must find the answers as to the causes of all these troubling events before they’re torn apart at the seams.
A majority of the decisions that appear on the screen in The Darkness are entirely bewildering, not to mention extremely lacking in fright. For much of the film, Mikey’s autism is only implied and isn’t explicitly stated until more than halfway through the film. Before that we’re told that “he’s not like the other kids,” a generic description that could really mean a number of things. And while I don’t have a personal stake in this depiction, I’ve known a few people with autistic children and would imagine that they’d be quite troubled by the connection of autism to horror – it’s a subject that’s difficult to explore in a genre setting, and it seems that on each and every level The Darkness finds itself on the wrong side.
Also baffling is the manner with which the Taylors discover the source of the mysterious troubles that are plaguing them – a series of articles and videos via a Google and YouTube lookalike. There is never an excuse for subjecting the audience to watch YouTube videos or glance through search results on Google. It’s just bad storytelling. Anyone familiar with the internet knows that searching for “autism supernatural” wouldn’t exactly yield answers as much as it would all sorts of bizarre misinformation. Then the Taylor family is assisted by the older Mexican woman, Teresa (Alma Martinez), and her granddaughter, Gloria (Ilza Rosario), who know all about the mystical curses of the Native American tribe behind the stones that bring the Darkness. It’s just a crude cliché within a cliché that isn’t subverted or commented upon, just employed as the lazy conclusion to the chaos.
The main cast does their best with the limited source material as written by Shayne Armstrong, Shane Krause, and Greg McLean. Kevin Bacon doesn’t give his best performance, but he’s obviously not just phoning it in. Yet there are some excellent actors in woefully underutilized supporting roles. Comedic actor Matt Walsh appears at the start of the film and injects a bit of levity before disappearing from the story, never to be seen again. Paul Reiser surprisingly appears as Bacon’s boss, but his handful of scenes exist solely so he can suggest the Mexican mystics of Teresa and Gloria. There’s a sleaziness to Reiser’s character that is only given a bit of lip service in his limited scenes. Another supporting player that appears only to be wasted is Ming Na-Wen as Reiser’s wife. The veteran actress is relegated to two forgettable scenes. Between Reiser, Na-Wen, and Walsh, The Darkness fails to find much to do with the kind of supporting actors that could make the most of film’s undercooked script.
There’s no suspense or tension within The Darkness. The film makes the common mistake in horror films where the audience knows the source of the terror and have to sit and wait for the characters on the screen to figure it out. A mystery isn’t engaging if we know the answer before the characters. The Darkness also refuses to raise the stakes of its story. Time and time again, the supernatural aspects may get weirder but they never feel more dangerous. Perhaps that lacking of stakes has something to do with the film’s nonexistent body count – except, of course, for a dog that is to be euthanized. Strange noises and shadowy figures in the dark aren’t enough to generate terror on their own, let alone for 90 solid minutes.
The Darkness is a disappointment because there are enough ingredients and people involved that this should be a stronger portrait of horror. McLean isn’t a hack and is capable of crafting terror and suspense, as evidenced by Wolf Creek. Produced by Blumhouse, who specialize in horror, The Darkness features the numerous kinds of mistakes that one wouldn’t expect from the premiere horror manufacturers in Hollywood. Die-hard fans of horror films should steer clear of The Darkness, which will likely only appeal to the undiscerning horror fans in their early teens. There’s almost an interesting story in The Darkness, but McLean and company can’t find it. What they find over and over is a derivative horror movie that fumbles its exploration of autism and moves into the realm of exploitation. The only thing lurking in The Darkness is an underwhelming movie full of unimaginative aspects.
A derivative horror film lacking in imagination, The Darkness features all of the worst aspects of the genre without any of its highlights.