Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2016

The Darkness

Open and shut

The Darkness sluggishly follows the path of a dried-up template

The Darkness
BH Tilt
Director: Greg McLean
Screenplay: Greg McLean, Shayne Armstrong and Shane Krause
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Radha Mitchell, David Mazouz, Lucy Fry, Ming-Na Wen and Paul Reiser
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 32 minutes
May 13, 2016
(out of four)

Just once, I'd like to see it play out like this.

A supernatural menace is terrorizing a nice suburban family, as usual. They are at their wits' end. One of the parents - the obsessed father, the worried mother - takes to Google (or, better yet, a fake search engine with a hilariously fake-sounding fake-search-engine name, like "E-Web Search" or "Bing") and enters the extremely specific details of their situation.

No results.

Shit. OK, so now they go to YouTube. They type in an even more specific scenario, hoping that somehow, impossibly, there will be a video waiting for them that explains the entire origin and mythology of the supernatural presence haunting their family, down to the very last detail. But ...

No results.

Fine. They get on the phone with that one friend of theirs who conveniently, earlier in the movie, mentioned offhand something about one of their relatives who had a paranormal experience that one time. So this friend gets the parents in touch with that relative, who sends them to an eccentric old paranormal expert, and they tell this eccentric old paranormal expert all about their situation.

Sorry. Not ringing any bells.

Undeterred, they go to every expert they can find. The hermit ex-cop who's seen some shit. Every professor in the history, philosophy, religion and paranormal psychology department of every college within driving distance. The owner of that dusty, cobwebbed antique shop downtown. The writer of that conspiracy blog they found. And every time, they get the same kinds of answers.

Nope. Never heard of anything like that. Doesn't sound familiar at all. Can't help you on this. The phenomenon you describe has literally never been experienced or reported by anyone else. You're on your own.

Just once. Because then, at least, the movie would be doing away with the lazy crutches that afflict what seems like every supernatural thriller these days. The Google search or YouTube video that explains everything. In this scenario, at least, the characters would be on their own, forced to confront an unnamed menace without the intellectual safety net of an old myth and its accompanying rulebook. The filmmakers would be challenged to come up with other, more resourceful ways to attack their problem. No more shortcuts.

Alas, The Darkness is decidedly not that movie. In fact it's one of the worst examples of exactly the kind of cheapness I'm talking about. Google and YouTube explain it all in a matter of seconds. There's no need to bother with the act of discovery, or with untying a narrative, or with (god forbid) ambiguity. No, like too many of its 21st Century predecessors, it just plops the information onto the screen all at once and hurries to resolve the story accordingly.

The film gives us nothing that isn't entirely expected, starting with the central nuclear family living in a flavorless American suburbia. Is Dad overworked? Of course he is. Let me be more specific. Is he an overworked architect? Of course! Is Mom constantly on his case about how he's never around? You bet. Is everyone in the family represented by one specific Defining Characteristic? Funny you should ask! The family's youngest, Michael (David Mazouz), is autistic. His older sister Stephanie (Lucy Fry) is anorexic. Their mother Bronny (Radha Mitchell, perpetually undervalued) is a recovering alcoholic. Research for the screenplay's various ailments was done alphabetically, so you can see how far the process went.

Strange things start happening around the house - fixtures and appliances turning on and off by themselves, unexplained symbols begin appearing, a bedroom catching on fire, children trying to eat the family pets. The usual. And meanwhile the distance grows between the family and Dad (Kevin Bacon), who for too long seems to think it's all no big deal, while the filmmakers try hard to convince us he is (or will be) having an affair with his drop-dead gorgeous (and much younger) new assistant.

Typical details aside, The Darkness is, above all, a failure of mood. Without anything particularly revelatory or unique in the story itself, we're left with whatever director Greg McLean can do with the material he's got. Which in this case is not much. The film has the ineffectual blandness of an Unsolved Mysteries dramatization. Eventually, the whole thing turns into something like Poltergeist Lite ... if Poltergeist were dull and stupid and had no personality. A sequence near the end at least reveals where the entire budget (and all of the movie's visual ideas) went, but by that point it's way too late to preserve any goodwill. If anyone were to be overly curious about the mythological details afflicting this poor family, or discovering how it all turns out ... eh, best to save a little time and just Google it.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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