I normally try to avoid movies that I know are going to be wretched. Yet that hasn’t stopped me from occasionally reviewing films with Tomatometers in the twenties or thirties. Fantastic Four (2015) was in the single digits when I sat through it.
But this has to be the first time I ever bought a ticket for a film with a big fat zero.
The Darkness is a horror film allegedly based on a true story told first-hand to director/co-writer/producer Greg McLean. You wouldn’t have heard of him, unless maybe you’re a fan of bargain-bin horror films like Wolf Creek and its sequel. He’s joined by the writing team of Shayne Armstrong and Shane Krause, whose shared filmography is so embarrassing that I’d feel guilty about discussing it any further.
(CORRECTION: Upon further review, and after feedback from quite a few correspondents, I apparently miscalculated the popularity of Wolf Creek. Seems it’s more of a “cult horror” thing than a “bargan bin” thing. I regret the error.)
The big name behind the scenes is Jason Blum, known throughout the world as “From the Producer of Paranormal Activity and Insidious.” In theory, it seems like he wants his name to be associated with the latest and greatest in Hollywood horror. In practice, he’s also the guy who helped bring us Jem and the Holograms (2015). Blum has been associated with so many varying films (91 and counting, according to IMDB) that his name accounts for virtually nothing in terms of quality.
But then we have the cast. We’ve got proven and reliable talents like Kevin Bacon and Paul Reiser. We’ve got underrated actors like Jennifer Morrison and Ming-Na Wen. We’ve even got promising up-and-comers like David Mazouz, easily one of the most pleasant surprises in the jarbled mess called “Gotham”. There’s also Radha Mitchell — hell if I know which category she falls into.
At first glance, this doesn’t look like a wretched abomination fit to be universally derided. If anything, it looks like just another horror film that evens out to mediocrity. As it turns out, that guess was a terrible understatement — this film is a level of mediocre that I didn’t even know existed.
The movie seems to start out well enough: We meet two families who have a great time vacationing together at the Grand Canyon. One of those families is never seen or heard from again through the rest of the film. And I don’t mean that like “they mysteriously disappeared”, though maybe they could have for all we know. They just drive out of frame and they’re gone like they never even existed.
Instead, we follow the other family and watch all the Weird Shit that happens when they get back home. What kind of Weird Shit? Oh, you know. Things randomly moving, shadowy figures appearing and disappearing without warning, lights flickering, creepy music playing in the score, a paranormal backstory made of whatever cobbled-together nonsense the plot needs to function… you know, Weird Shit.
The thing about Blumhouse films is that they’re never short on atmosphere. It’s not just about characters making horribly dumb choices and it’s not about finding messier and more inventive ways of killing people off. It’s all about building up that sense of dread to make the scare more satisfying when it comes. That’s a huge part of what made Insidious, Sinister, The Conjuring, and Paranormal Activity such huge hits.
But here’s the problem: We already know that. Either we’ve already seen those movies, or we’ve seen some movie trying to ride those coattails (see: the 2015 remake of Poltergeist). But unlike the other, more effective movies, this one brings nothing new to the table. If you’ve seen any horror movie in the past ten years, you already know every play in this movie’s book. You’ll know exactly where the scares are hiding, you’ll know when the scares are coming down to the split-second, and you’ll probably even know exactly what the scares are. And it should go without saying that in a horror film (even more than any other kind of film with the possible exception of comedy) being predictable is a dealbreaker. It’s the biggest — quite possibly the ONLY — unforgivable sin.
Then we have the characters. At this point, just forget everything I said about the cast at the top of this review. The cast could’ve been comprised entirely of Oscar winners or entirely of community theatre rejects and it wouldn’t have made a difference. There’s just nothing here for anyone to work with.
The characters all start out so likeable, but then the prologue ends and they all suddenly become paper-thin stereotypes on a dime. The film would have us believe that it’s because of the dark spirits invading their home, but I’m not buying it. And that’s in large part because all of these characters get precisely one “fault” that serves no point in the plot. The father is having an affair, and it leads to nothing. The wife is a recovering alcoholic, and that could’ve been cut. The daughter is a bulimic, and that plotline is dropped entirely after two minutes.
Really, the only character quirk that’s completely indispensable would be the son’s autism. Yes, David Mazouz gives a laughable and borderline insensitive portrayal of an autistic boy. This provides the family with a convenient excuse to convince themselves that nothing’s wrong. Then the film goes a step further and talks about a possible link between autistic children and paranormal happenings. If this picture hadn’t jumped the shark already, it sure as fuck did right there.
Though I will say this much about the filmmakers: They cast their possessed kid very well. Playing a crazy demon child is absolutely part of Mazouz’ repertoire, and I expect it’ll serve him well. In fact, he’s slated to do that again later this year with Incarnate. Based on the preview, it looks like an exorcism film by way of Inception, which is just crazy enough to be something stupidly cool. But I digress.
Aside from the paper-thin characters, all that’s left is to talk about the weak attempts at comic relief, the pathetically blunt exposition, the crowbarred-in exorcism cliches, and the godawful pacing. I swear to Craven, by the time I had reached the halfway point, I was begging for someone to please just fucking die already.
Despite all of that, The Darkness isn’t offensively bad, outrageously bad, or aggressively bad. It doesn’t really do anything wrong, mostly because it doesn’t really do anything at all. It’s nothing more than a stale moldy fruit salad of tricks and scares pulled from other, better Blumhouse pictures. There’s nothing remarkable about it, there’s nothing scary or shocking or bold about it, there’s nothing new about it, there’s nothing to get angry about… really, it’s just an empty nothing of a film. Dull as dogshit, nondescript as its title, so boring that it wouldn’t even be worthwhile to make fun of or get drunk to.
This might be scary to someone who’s somehow gone without seeing a horror movie in the past ten years, but even then, there are so many other better and more influential films to start with. And as much as I’d love to keep going on about how bland and lazy and uninspired this film is, I’ve already wasted more words than it’s worth.