Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Films of 2016: The Darkness

“The Darkness” is what the horror movie genre itself could find itself facing if studios and filmmakers don’t stop playing things so damned safe. 

In short, The Darkness is a film you’ve seen a million times before, except before now it was titled The Possession (2012), or Insidious (2010), or Sinister (2012) or Annabelle (2014), or Paranormal Activity 4 (2012). 

In horror films of this type, affluent white American families with approximately 2.5 children interface with the supernatural, a force which often takes the form of a child’s imaginary friend. At first the imaginary friend is dismissed as such. Until it shows its true colors.

Said rich white family -- usually living in a house you might expect to see as show-pieces on HGTV – eventually manages to overcome its many dysfunctions, band together, and beat back the evil forces.  

At the end, a lesson about family is learned.

Sometimes the horror du jour in these films is ethnic in nature (The Possession, The Darkness), bringing in an unfortunate quality of ethnocentrism to the proceedings. But always we have that one affluent family pulling together in the face of a crisis, and beating back the threats of, well, “Otherness.”

Some of these films have actually been quite good, and I have reviewed them favorably, or mostly favorably.

But the fact remains that if you go to the same well too many times, horror is diminished. 

Why?  Well, as I’ve written before, we are not afraid of the things we know and are familiar with; we’re afraid of ambiguity; of the things we don’t know.

Yet we can pretty much diagram, from the first frame, exactly how The Darkness will play out, and we’d be right in our assumptions.

First, a child is jeopardized by the imaginary friend/ethnic spirit. Second, one parent conducts feverish Internet research to discover the truth when conventional methods can’t help.

Third, one parent won’t get on board/refuses to believe in the supernatural. Fourth: ethnic exorcist is summoned to clean the house of evil spirits. And lastly, the family, in face of the exorcist’s failure, summons up own resources -- love, togetherness, etc., -- to repel the darkness.

The Darkness is so familiar, so routine that is actually one of the most terror-less movies I’ve ever seen.  The movie unfolds at a lugubrious pace, with great portentousness, and yet there are no big shocks, no big twists, no good jump scares, even.

The Darkness is of the horror genre, but not horrific, except in terms of its overall quality.

Sure, it is well-cast and competently shot, but The Darkness settles down over the audience like a shroud of utter mediocrity.

Been there. Done that.

“I think there’s something else in the house.”

The Taylor family visits the Grand Canyon with friends.  While there, the Taylor boy, Michael (David Mazouz) -- who is autistic -- falls into a cave.  Unbeknownst to his family, he pockets several sacred stones of the long-vanished Anasazi tribe; stones that kept fearsome spirits locked in a kind of nether dimension.

Once home, the Taylors grapple with family issues.

Daughter Stephanie is bulimic, and keeps her vomit in jars under her bed.  The matriarch of the family, Bronny (Radha Mitchell), meanwhile, is a recovering alcoholic who has still not forgiven her husband, Peter (Kevin Bacon) for a marital indiscretion. 

Peter, meanwhile, is working long hours, and has been assigned a lovely and worshipful female assistant.

Soon, the evil spirits, which have followed the family home, begin to encroach on Michael and our very reality.  Their hope is to take Michael back to their realm, and open a new age of darkness on Earth.

“He’s getting dangerous. Why can’t you see that?”

It’s always good to see Kevin Bacon and Radha Mitchell back in horror, bringing their unique and singular talents to the genre.  And indeed, the most intriguing aspect of The Darkness is the relationship between the lead characters, Peter and Bronny.  They exist in a feedback loop of guilt, bad-communication, and self-recriminations.  Their attempts to hold the family together give The Darkness what little emotional impact it possesses. 

Unfortunately, these fine actors are put through paces that are all too routine. They argue with another, question their beliefs, and ultimately defend the family. In the end, the battle with the supernatural is won -- standing in for the relationship battle -- and the whole family celebrates at a picnic together.

Again, you can reference any big horror movie title from 2010 – 2016 and pretty much see the same battle lines drawn.  The bonuses of this format: good actors, nice art design, and a warm, sentimental message about the value of supporting your loved ones. 

But in terms of horror, I don’t really need “A” list actors, or happy messages, or a level of art design that suggests a middle class family should aspire to a dwelling it could never afford.

However, as I often write, regarding found footage films and also slasher films, “formula” itself is not an automatic death sentence in terms of a movie’s quality. 

Indeed, the finest slasher and found footage films are those which find ways to subvert a long-standing or cliched formula. These films toy with expectations. They take a familiar formula or structure as a given, and then twist and stretch it.  So it is entirely possible that a great film in this format -- affluent white family imperiled by the supernatural -- could be vetted successfully.

But The Darkness isn’t that film.

It doesn’t add to or bend the standing formula in anything approaching an interesting way.

Instead, there seems to be a cookie cutter or fill-in-the-blank nature to the treatment of the supernatural here. Instead of getting the Jewish Dybbuk box of The Possession, this movie presents us with the Native American spell stones. 

Both objects are but opportunities for supernatural incursion, but The Darkness fails to exploit the specific material for its obvious value.  Consider how these Native American spirits might feel knowing that the descendants of white oppressors had inherited their peoples’ land.  Might they not see their own campaign of horror as revenge for the horrors visited upon their people?  Indeed, with a little tweaking, The Darkness could be a horror film about karma. About the rightful owners of the land destroying those corrupt individuals who inherited it.

The movie gives absolutely no hint, no indication that even knows a little about American history. 

This is a movie, after all, about Caucasians stealing Native American objects of cultural value (the stones) and then, again, winning the day by destroying those Native American forces. 

My only thought on this?  Horror movies have become so antiseptic and lacking in subtext these days that they don’t take advantage of even the most obvious opportunities to include it.  The Darkness could have worked on a successful metaphorical level, had it chosen to do so.

The Darkness doesn’t handle autism any better than it handles history. Michael is able to return to the stones and not fear the demons because of his emotionless affect.  The movie politely telegraphs this fact for us in early dialogue.  In one of the first scenes, Michael’s sister tells us that he is not afraid of the same things as other kids.  When he hear the prophecy of the demons, we learn that they can be defeated only by one “without fear.” 

So of course, bingo! We have a winner: it’s Michael.

Even the Taylor parents aren’t handled with much depth or consistency. Bronny is so overcome with despair and worry for her family over the supernatural incursion that she begins hitting the bottle again.  So what do Bronny and Peter do after they learn there are possibly demons in the house? 

How about go out for a dinner date with friends?! 

Naturally, they leave the kids in the house…

The film also appears to be the victim of some unfortunate post-production interference or editing As The Darkness opens in the Grand Canyon, we meet another family, the Carters. We encounter the son, the wife and the husband. These characters have significant dialogue, and scenes which indicate they may play a role in the ongoing narrative.

After the first scene, they are never seen again.

Instead, we meet another set of friends during the movie proper: Peter’s boss and his wife….who just so happen also to have had a supernatural experience in their past.

Did I like anything about The Darkness at all?  

Well, buried somewhere here is the idea of the nuclear family’s destruction at its own hand. Everyone in the Taylor family has a vice, foible, condition or diagnosis that is making life miserable.  They live in the perfect house, but are not the perfect family. 

At one point, filthy hand-prints appear on Stephanie’s bed, and on Stephanie herself.  That “incursion” seems a perfect metaphor for the family itself; dirtied and soiled by day-to-day life, and day-to-day hurts.

But even that scene is not really scary.  It is sort of memorable, I suppose, but not even really chilling. And the manifestations of the demons -- as animals such as wolves, snakes, coyotes and crows -- also fail to inspire fear in any effective or consistent manner.

Familiarity breeds contempt, not terror, and The Darkness is so familiar, so rote, so empty that one leaves a viewing feeling nothing but disdain for it.

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