There are good films and bad films. There are films which start well then fall apart at the conclusion, and also films which, despite expectation, manage to rally to a superior final act. Then there are films which manage to maintain an astonishing level of bland mediocrity, sailing on an even keel across a flawless lake of indifference. The Darkness achieves this dubious feat.
The first American produced feature of Australian director Greg McLean, it is far from the grim shocks of Wolf Creek or even its less satisfying sequel, and while superficially the supernatural horror brought into a domestic suburban environment fits the model of Blumhouse Productions, home of The Purge, Sinister and The Visit, it plays with such a lack of conviction it seems almost afraid to be labelled as such.
Opening with a two family camping trip to the Grand Canyon (the second family serving no dramatic purpose and never referred to again after the opening scenes), left behind while the others explore young Mikey Taylor (Gotham‘s David Mazouz) falls through a weakened section of rock to a cave beneath, where he finds primitive paintings and several small stones carved with talismans.
Returning home, Mikey’s autism begins to manifest in new ways, at first dismissed by his parents Peter and Bronny (Tremors’ Kevin Bacon and Pitch Black’s Rhada Mitchell) though his elder sister Stephanie (11.22.63‘s Lucy Fry) feels she is being targeted, spied upon, and calls upon their parents to take action to control Mikey’s behaviour, a situation which becomes unavoidable when a fire is set in the house.
Rushing through the scenes as though the producer was stood in the wings with a checklist and a ticking clock – burning smell, taps running, noises in the attic, sooty handprints, try to kill grandma’s cat – the constant scene changes fail to generate any tension or atmosphere, yet other moments meander without purpose, as Bronny takes solace in candlelit baths, afternoons in the sun dappled pool and large quantities of expensive vodka rather than actually spending time with her troubled offspring before going online to a woo page which advises her that autistic children are magnets for the supernatural.
Written by Shayne Armstrong and S P Krause, co-developers of the Australian K-9 television series, the early scenes among the valleys of the Arizona wilderness play to co-writer Mclean’s strengths, astonishing rock formations shaped by eons, places where history has etched itself into stone and carries with it the memories of those who came before, the long vanished tribes of the Anasazi.
In the tastefully decorated modern home of architect Peter and his family, the white walls and feng shuied objets d’art reduce everything to a series of Hallmark channel moments, the revelation that Stephanie suffers from bulimia, that Peter had an affair, that Bronny believes that this is karma, the children acting up in response to their troubled marriage, the film desperately fumbling for anything which might qualify as drama and failing.
With wretched effects which could have been crafted more effectively by traditional means, the audience are fully aware of what is going on a full half hour before Peter and Bronny, and even in a moment of painfully egregious exposition when Peter finds a handy online tutorial which comprehensively describes the Anasazi spirit guides, the coyote, the snake, the crow, the buffalo and the wolf, how they can be awoken and the consequences of such, “the darkness” which will bring on the end of the world, he does nothing.
Instead it falls to family friend Wendy (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s Ming-Na Wen) to recommend a Hopi healer for a further session of woo, and the merging of the plots of Poltergeist and, imaginatively, Poltergeist II: The Other Side is completed by the arrival of native American Tangina and her dowsing rods, but with none of the vital spirit.
Not even bad enough to be funny and culminating in a trite finale which ignores that despite his autism Mikey cannot fail to be aware it is the actions in which he has persisted which have damaged his home and placed his family in danger, with a derivative script and lifeless direction neither the usually dependable leads nor the striking costumes of the spirit guides turned demons can raise the film above consistently forgettable mediocrity.