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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.

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