Reviews

Darkness Falls (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

Sets a new bar for lack of logic.


Darkness Falls

Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Cast: Chaney Kley, Emma Caulfield, Antony Burrows, Lee Cormie
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Columbia Pictures
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2003-04-29

It's dark and windy. A boy quakes in his bed. His mom just tucked him in, and told him everything was all right, but he knows better: the house creaks and shrieks, creepazoidal shadows glide over his wall, thunder cracks. Hiding under the covers, he grabs for a flashlight on his nightstand. Panicky and barely breathing, he manages to flick it on at the last minute, just before something -- some floating, eerie, porcelain-masked, and vaguely female creature -- comes at him. The boy screams.

This brief description of an early scene from Darkness Falls, now released on DVD, makes it sound like lots of scary movies. In fact, most every idea in it is very familiar: Elm Street's badly-burned-fiend and don't-go-to-sleep premise; Blair Witch's old-biddy vengeance plot; Candyman's unfounded blame for murder cast on victims; the rather worn out Phantom-of-the-Opera-Halloween-hockey-mask monster look; They's "night terror" framework; the can't-go-in-the-light idea used much more effectively in The Others, as well as Pitch Black's stay-in-the-light-or-else business; the little-kid-accused-of-murder-and-sent-to-a-madhouse concept; even the exceedingly familiar spooky-lighthouse long shot, most recently used in The Ring.

Still, the movie looks uncommonly weak. Based on Tooth Fairy, a five-minute film by Joseph Harris (here credited with "story by" and a third of the screenplay), Darkness Falls begins with a lengthy narration, explaining just why this kid will be so scared of the floating wraithy thingy with the white mask. A hundred and fifty years ago, Matilda Dixon was a nice "tooth fairy," friend to all the kids in the town of Darkness Falls, until she's horribly disfigured in a fire, forced to wear a porcelain mask, and stay out of the daylight. Falsely accused of a terrible crime, she's hanged, but not before she curses the mobbish townsfolk -- whenever kids lose their teeth in the future, she'll come kill 'em.

All this leads to the boy in his bedroom, named Kyle (played by Joshua Anderson as a child). When the wraith can't kill him (because he's got a flashlight), it kills his mom instead, leaving horrific bloody wounds all over her drained, pale body. Accused of this grisly murder, Kyle is sent away, much to the chagrin of Caitlin, the neighbor girl who has a crush on him.

Years later, Kyle (now played by Chaney Kley) is de-institutionalized and busy stockpiling batteries, flashlights, and flares, while also checking and rechecking his cache of anti-psychotic drugs. So maybe he's not the most stable personality. But scrappy Caitlin (now played by Buffy's most excellent Vengeance Demon, Emma Caulfield) still carries a torch, of sorts. She phones him up, explaining that she actually does have a reason: she has a little brother, Michael (Lee Cormie, with annoying "widdle kid" enunciation), currently suffering "night terrors" that resemble Kyle's old stories, and locked up in the local hospital. Against his better judgment, Kyle returns to the small town that so cruelly damned him.

Bad idea. Everyone's determined to harass him, from the townie bullies to Larry (Grant Piro), the jealous nerdly former classmate guy who's now a lawyer and courting Caitlin. And, of course, he's suddenly revisited by the wraith (part concoction by Stan Winston's creature shop, part digital black shroud, part Antony Burrows), who apparently didn't have Kyle's address in the hospital.

Plainly not invested in logic, the wraith does appear at first to have a plan, convoluted as it is: to assault kids who've lost their teeth, and especially to pursue kids who've lost their last teeth and avoid death by turning a light on her (and, evidently importantly, "seeing" her in the process). But when she has trouble killing a kid with an unambiguous tooth affiliation -- say, Kyle and then Michael -- she's willing to settle for anyone in the vicinity.

So, when the loutish, big-mouthed, hard-drinking Ray (Angus Sampson) gives Kyle a hard time at a scuzzy bar (to which he has inexplicably agreed to go with Larry the Lawyer), they end up in the dark woods where the ghost comes a-calling: she flies through the night air to scratch and flay Ray, leaving Kyle the most likely suspect. Samey-same when Larry schemes to keep Kyle away from Caitlin and drives him out in another woods, where he slams the car into a tree and then, when Kyle instructs him not to, he looks up at the wraith swooping down on him and meets his own ghastly fate, again leaving Kyle to appear guilty for the local PD, who promptly lock him up -- without a flashlight -- and then fall prey to the erstwhile tooth fairy themselves. (The cops, it should be said, are preternaturally dense, having not noticed the series of unsolved murders that have plagued their town for decades.)

Perhaps the wraith appreciates the irony of inflicting false arrest and punishment on someone else. Maybe the movie just needs a pile-up of bodies to emphasize her unspeakable evil, or to stretch out a 5-minute idea into 75 minutes by way of laughable carnage and cheap effects. Or it could be that Ms. Dixon is just playing matchmaker for the film's designated couple: Caitlin and Kyle, fortunate enough to have the built-in nuclear-convenient child, Michael, whose own parents (also, presumably, Caitlin's) don't merit a mention in the tumult of plot turns and corpses-to-be that fill up Darkness Falls.

Indeed, it appears that, if not for the tooth fairy, Caitlin and Kyle would never get over themselves enough to hook up. He's shocked when she calls him up, then briefly resists her entreaties, themselves rather stilted and hesitant, as if she's still the girl who didn't get to go o the dance because her date was charged with matricide. True, she is visibly uncomfortable under Larry's proprietary touch, but she makes little effort to assuage Kyle's nerves, even reminding him, rather callously, of his own incarceration and supposed insanity. But, when he's beat up and dragged through the woods, appearing before her bloodied and besieged, she's undeniably drawn to him: "I need to get this gravel out of your scalp," she mutters, strong-arming him into a chair near the light in order to do her nurturing duty.

It is a clever come-on line, to be sure. And it suggests that her instincts regarding light are good. But it's mostly lost on Kyle, the big lug, determined to make his date with his destiny, i.e., his mother's slayer. This is hurried along when a massive power failure kills every light in town, and the hardy survivors head over to the lighthouse to turn it on and blast the wraith out of existence, temporarily at least. Kyle, Caitlin, and Michael make a neat little grouping, and Caitlin conveniently loses her sweater during the drive over to the lighthouse, so that the film's final scenes might feature her in a string-strapped, clingy top. Someone gave serious thought to costume design, at least.

Such details can be important, underlined by storyboard comparisons and the "featurettes" on the DVD, as well as by observations concerning, say, Emma Caulfield's wig, made on the commentary tracks. There are two, the first including the director, Jonathan Liebesman, producers William Sherak and Jason Schulman, and James Vanderbilt (one of three writers), and the second, writers Joe Harris and John Fasano, featured on the other commentary track. It's clear they've all thought through the scares and effects carefully, if not their derivations. As Fasano observes while watching the shadows on little Kyle's wall, "Darkness is almost a medium, through which this thing can move." Not exactly news, but not a bad idea either.

Liebesman explains some of the difficulties of underfunded filmmaking (one actor was pregnant and gave birth during shooting, so they shot her scenes months apart), the use of stock footage to establish settings, and "the low budget version of death," that is, cuts to create effects instead of effects (digital or makeup) creating them. Liebesman also sees his work in contexts: there's an "homage to Kubrick" in a symmetrical hallway, for example, and another, more self-consciously joking, to Spider-Man, as Kyle suffers a flashback (this though the film was shot before Spider-Man's release) or Requiem for a Dream, having to do with Kyle's speeding). In fact, the group commentating grants the entire endeavor more density than it appears to have at first glance. For new filmmakers and those interested in how such things get done, the commentary tracks here are likely useful as well as entertaining.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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