Wednesday, May 25, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: The Darkness

The Darkness was written by Shayne Armostrong and Shane Krause, and directed by Greg McLean.

Armstrong and Krause are Australian writing partners whose previous credits include the Doctor Who spinoff K9, along with a series of TV movies you're unlikely to have ever heard of. 

McLean is an Australian filmmaker (I get the distinct impression that despite the fact it takes place in America, this is an Australian film) who previously directed Wolf Creek and Wolf Creek 2, which were both decent slasher-type movies. As I always say, you can't hit one out of the park every time at bat.

Sigh… another month, another watered-down, PG-13 suburban "horror" film that's about as scary as a basket of kittens. There've been so many of these half-assed horror films in the past ten years or so that I can no longer tell them apart. 

The blandness even extends to the movie's title— The Darkness. I can't imagine a more uninspired name. Originally the film was going to be called 6 Miranda Drive, which is even worse, and tells you absolutely nothing about the content. As dull as The Darkness title is, at least it sounds slightly ominous.

Imagine the Hawaiian vacation episode of The Brady Bunch (in which Bobby steals a tiki idol necklace from a sacred site) crossed with the original Poltergeist, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what this film's like. 

In fact, every frame of this film is inspired by, if not lifted directly from Poltergeist. The writers don't just use it as a rough outline, they slavishly copy it in every possible way. There's a suburban family whose house is plagued by strange happenings. There's a younger child who's the only one who can see or communicate with the spirits. The spirit activity escalates until they begin physically attacking the members of the household. Worst of all, the family ends up calling a professional spiritual medium to rid their house of evil spirits! 

The writers of The Darkness simply swapped out angry corpses for ancient Indian demons, and switched the medium from Caucasian to Hispanic. Other than that they're pretty much the same film.

According to the promotional materials, The Darkness is based on a true story, and I believe it. Yep, there's no doubt in my mind that it's true that this movie is based on a story.

Once again we get another one of those "Produced by" posters. This one proudly proclaims it's from the producers of The Visit, Sinister and Insidious. First of all, that's nothing to brag about. Secondly, does Hollywood actually believe this works? Do they really think the general public is going to look at this poster and say, "Hey, this movie's from the producer of The Visit! That guy produced the hell out of that movie, so this one HAS to be good!"

Lastly, take a good look at that poster. It's supposed to be terrifying (I think), but it looks for all the world like a clueless husband was working on his car, mistakenly grabbed a bedspread instead of a towel and wiped his greasy hands on it.


The Plot:
Peter Taylor (played by Kevin Bacon), his wife Bronny (played by Radha Mitchell), his teenaged daughter Stephanie and young son Mikey all go on a vacation to the Grand Canyon. While there, Mikey, who's autistic, wanders off from the campsite and falls into a deep cave. Inside the cave he finds strange markings on the wall, along with five stones arranged on a makeshift altar. The stones are all carved with primitive symbols. Mikey takes them, hides them in his backpack and strolls back to the campsite.

The Taylors return home and it's not long before odd things start happening around their house. The kitchen tap turn on by itself (terrifying!), light bulbs explode (horrifying!) and strange noises emanate from the attic (ghastly!). Mikey says his new imaginary friend "Jenny" is responsible.

As the incidents escalate, the Taylor family begins slowly falling apart. Peter, who once had an affair, begins spending more time at work and flirts with his beautiful young assistant. Bronny, a recovering alcoholic, begins drinking again. Stephanie throws up in a container and hides it under her bed (!), revealing she's bulimic. Mikey's already odd behavior becomes more erratic, as he tries to kill his grandmother's cat.

Bronny takes to the internet to find answers. She finds a Youtube video that helpfully explains everything that's happening. According to the video, the Anasazi Indians believe that thousands of years ago powerful demons they called the Sky People left their dimension and appeared on Earth. They took the forms of a crow, a snake, a coyote, a wolf and a buffalo. The demons were prone to dragging children into their dimension, but were mostly concerned with triggering an apocalyptic event called The Darkness (we have a title!), that would cover the Earth in night, or something. 
The Anasazi were able to banish the Sky People back to their dimension, and placed five carved rocks in a cave to prevent their return. 

Just then Bronny hears a noise, and discovers Mikey's set the wall of his room on fire (?). Peter, who doesn't buy into all the supernatural guff, is fed up with Mikey and tries to discipline him, but Bronny stops him, saying the fire wasn't his fault.

That night the Taylors have dinner with Peter's boss (played by Paul Reiser) and his wife Wendy (played by Ming-Na Wen). Bronny and Wendy both chat about the supernatural, while the Boss (amazingly, Reiser's character has no name) interrupts and shuts them down.

When the Taylors return home, they find Mikey covered with black, sooty handprints, and blood pours from his mouth. Apparently this is no cause for alarm, as Peter suggests waiting until morning to take him to the hospital. Bronny brings up Peter's affair (is this really the best time for that?), and accuses him of being distant and not noticing anything. He proves he notices plenty by pointing out the bottles of booze she cleverly hid under the couch. Jesus, what is this, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Meanwhile Mikey sits in his room, as demonic looking hands come out of his burned wall, indicating it's a portal of some kind.

Stephanie falls asleep and is awakened by a series of black handprints appearing on her legs, arms and neck. Ah, so the Sky People are perverts! Peter finds Mikey in his room, which is covered by handprints on the walls and ceiling. Peter's finally convinced something supernatural is behind the odd occurrences.

He contacts "Boss," who says his own son had some sort of vague supernatural malady a year or two back, and was cured by a couple of spiritual healers. He gives Peter their number.

Peter calls the healers, and Tangina Barrows, er, I mean Teresa Morales and her granddaughter Kat arrive. Teresa speaks only Spanish, so Kat serves as her translator. Bronny tells them about the Sky People, and the healers get to work busting the ghosts. I could make a joke here about a white family hiring a couple of Hispanic women to "clean" their house, but I won't.

Teresa uses metal divining rods to hunt down the demons and chase them back to their own dimension. They clean the downstairs, but when they enter Mikey's room, Teresa says it's where the real evil dwells. As she recites a banishing spell, the unseen, angry demons smash the windows and hurl shards of glass at her. 

As the others are distracted, Mikey walks through the portal in the wall of his room. When Bronny notices Mikey's missing, Peter rushes into the room and the door locks behind him. He sees Mikey on the other side of the portal, standing with the Sky People. They're wearing masks of a crow, snake, coyote, wolf and buffalo. 

Peter sees the carved stones on the floor of Mikey's room, picks them up and leaps through the portal. Unfortunately he's too afraid to place them back into position, which will banish the Sky People. He tells the demons to take him instead of Mikey. So he's too terrified of them to lay some rocks on an altar, but can willingly offer to sacrifice himself. Got it.

Mikey, who's "not afraid" (because of the whole autism thing), picks up the stones and puts them back in place. The Sky People vanish one by one, and Peter and Mikey jump back through the portal as it disappears. Teresa says, "This house is clean!" Wait, wrong movie.

We then see a ridiculously contrived ending scene of the Taylor family having a picnic on a golden sunny day. I guess all their deep-rooted psychological problems are cured!

• In most suburban horror films, the family in question is plagued by deep-seated psychological problems. In fact it often seems like the sinister occurrences in their home are caused by long-suppressed neuroses finally bubbling to the surface rather than ghosts.

Nowhere is that more true than in The Darkness. Every member of the Taylor family has some sort of mental disorder. Peter's a workaholic and philanderer. Bronny's a recovering alcoholic. Daughter Stephanie is a distant teen with bulimia. Young son Mikey is autistic. 

Jesus, is there any syndrome or malady the writers forgot to trowel onto them? I'm surprised Stephanie didn't run away to join ISIS, or Peter wasn't revealed to be an evil cyborg from the future.

• During the Grand Canyon vacation, Mikey wanders around the sharp rocks and sheer cliff walls. He steps on a weak spot in the ground and falls into a large cave. The way the scene's shot, it looks like he falls at least a hundred feet. After he takes the carved stones from the altar, he casually strolls right out of the cave, and I swear it looks like he exits about five feet from where he fell into the hole. 

How the hell did that happen? Were there stairs in the cave? A really tall ladder? How'd he fall a hundred feet while staying at ground level?

• So five small rocks arranged on a makeshift altar are the only things keeping these super-powerful evil entities from invading our world. Got it.

Good thing no one else ever discovered the cave in the past thousand years. Or that there was never an earthquake that dislodged the rocks.
 Who the hell would ever name a character "Bronny?" Especially these days, when My Little Pony fandom is still going strong? Every time I type her name I can't help but think "Brony."

• Apparently Mikey doesn't go to any kind of school. We see Stephanie come and go to class every day, so obviously the story's taking place during the school year, but Mikey— who looks to be at least ten— stays home every day with Bronny. She doesn't even appear to be homeschooling him. Shouldn't he be in some sort of special class for kids with his condition?

• Who the hell is Jenny? When strange things begin happening in the Taylor house, Mikey blames them on his new imaginary friend, who he calls Jenny. Later on we find out that the "Sky People" are behind all the occurrences.

I refuse to believe that any of these ancient demons from pre-history goes by the name of "Jenny."

Also, at one point Bronny goes grocery shopping, and takes Mikey with her. He begs her for a helium-filled balloon, and she gives in and says yes. He then says that "Jenny" would like one as well, looking at her expectantly. Smash cut to the Taylor home, where we see two balloons floating in Mikey's room.

So apparently the evil, world-conquering Sky People like playing with balloons.

OK, later on we're told that the Sky People like to abduct children, so I suppose it's possible that "Jenny" was one of those kids, and they're using her spirit or something to try and indoctrinate Mikey. I get the feeling I'm putting way more thought into this issue than the screenwriters did though.

• I'm a big fan of actress Ming Na Wen, and have been watching her in movies and TV since the 1980s. It pains me to see her starring in dreck like this. Surely there are better parts for her than derivative, watered-down PG-13 horror films like this one?

• Kevin Bacon and Ming-Na Wen are both 1980s soap opera veterans. Bacon starred as alcoholic teen Tim Werner on The Guiding Light, while Wen played Vietnamese refugee Lien Hughes on As The World Turns.

• Bronny discovers her daughter Stephanie is bulimic. A couple things here:

First of all, every time Steph eats something, she retires to her room where she chastely vomits into a plastic bag and seals it inside a Tupperware container (awesome product placement!). Bronny finds several hundred of these containers under Steph's bed. Jesus Christ! Did it never once occur to this air-headed teen to quietly dump the Tupperware in the trash? Did she really think no one would ever notice the large, festering vomit cemetery under her bed?

Secondly, after her family discovers her condition, they take her to a therapist. And that's the end of that! We see her go in for one session, and the problem is never mentioned again! I'm pretty sure it takes years to get over bulimia. If ever.

Kevin Bacon gets a good look at the script in The Darkness.
• Bronny does a google search, and conveniently finds a YouTube video (with the logo strangely scrubbed off) explaining Everything You've Ever Wanted To Know About The Sky People, But Were Afraid To Ask. Yep, there's nothing more riveting that watching a character in a movie surf the internet!

We then see a montage of the webpages and articles she finds. They look like they contain pertinent information that would be good to know, but they fly by much too fast to for us to read, making me wonder why they bothered with them in the first place.

• I could overlook most of the film's many, many similarities to Poltergeist, except for one— calling in the occult expert to clean the house. They might as well have just taken footage of Tangina Barrons and spliced it directly into The Darkness. It's that blatant. Teresa Morales, the spiritual medium here, does everything but shout, "Cross over, children! All are welcome! GO INTO THE LIGHT!"

• The end of the film is a huge cheat. Peter finds out that Mikey stole the carved stones from the Grand Canyon cave, which released the Sky People from their exile. One he discovered that, I figured he'd get in his car, drive all the way back to the Grand Canyon and replace the stones on the cave altar. Nope!

The Sky People very helpfully open up a portal in the wall of Mikey's room. This allows Peter and Mikey to step through and instantly teleport several hundred miles to the cave where the stones were found. Once inside the cave, Mikey replaces the stones, which banishes the Sky People back to their own dimension.

Why the hell would the Sky People do this? They basically just helped Peter destroy them!

Oddly enough, once the stones are replaced and the spirits vanquished, the portal is considerate enough to stay open long enough for Peter and Mikey to step back through into their home. 

• The final scene of the film, in which the Taylors are picnicking in the sunshine, apparently free of all their problems, was unintentionally hilarious. These people were all at each other's throats earlier, and now they're apparently blissfully free of all their problems. 

Yes, we're told that the Sky People amplify negative emotions and cause people to argue and fight. But the Taylors all seemed like they hated one another before the demons came to live with them. I ain't buying their over the top, 1950s sitcom family act.

The Darkness is a bland mess of a film that's a virtual carbon copy of the original Poltergeist. Unfortunately it proves that stealing from a good film often results in a poor one. Don't bother seeing this one in the theater— stay home and re-watch Poltergeist again. I give it a C-.

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