It’s frightening, but it’s more psychological and more to do with the characters interacting.
— Anna Paquin, “Darkness Illuminated: Behind the Scenes of Darkness“
Why can’t we just talk? There’s things I need to tell you.
— Regina (Anna Paquin), Darkness
Regina (Anna Paquin) is a surly girl. And she’s got good reason. Still in high school, she’s unhappy that her father, Mark (Iain Glen), is suffering from apparent seizures and that her mother, Maria (Lena Olin), is the queen of denial. She’s mad that neither parent seems particularly concerned with looking after her pasty little brother, Paul (Stephan Enquist). And most of all, she’s angry that the family has recently moved to the Spanish countryside to live in a haunted house. This just tears it.
The house, you see, has a history. And so does Juame Balagueró’s Darkness, now released in an “unrated version” DVD (which means that it offers a few more minutes of… well, darkness, as well as a wholly unenlightening doc called, circularly, “Darkness Illuminated: Behind the Scenes of Darkness“), that is, the film draws from all sorts of previous bad house movies. The film starts with cryptic bits of this history, chants and shadows and children sacrificed. Legend has it that seven children went missing long ago, apparently victims of some dark, witchy-or-culty plot, and their tragedy has dampened the town’s mood for the 40 years since.
Not to mention Mark’s. As Reggie learns, he was one of the seven children, the only one returned to his family, meaning, his father, Albert (Giancarlo Giannini, whose marked Italianness in this Spanish milieu only exacerbates the family’s unaddressed multi-nationalism, what with the Swedish Olin, Scottish Glen, Singapore-born Enquist, and Canadian Paquin: chalk it up to the “global economy”). Mark’s distress — unworked-out as a child, maybe repressed, maybe lost to a spell — now comes roaring back with a vengeance, as he begins to suffer nasty symptoms, ranging from sweats to sleeplessness to aggression against his own family. Before you can say “Jack Torrance,” he’s telling his kids, “This is gonna be the best house in the whole world!”
Reggie knows better, or at least knows this much is wrong. And it’s her assignment in this hodgepodgy horror flick to poke around for the truth, as incoherent and derivative as it may be. Her first clue that something is desperately wrong is that the electricity in the house tends to go out, whether or not a thunderstorm is raging (and Darkness features more than its share of storms, loud and wet).
Soon the house is not only dark at all hours, but also stealing Paul’s colored pencils (by way of the resident evil spirit, apparently quite dexterous), making creaky sounds, and sending forth sludge from its faucets, the sort of sludge that such movies pass off as ominous portent when really, the point is your basic gross-out. Reggie seeks solace with a new boyfriend she meets at school, Carlos (Fele Martínez). He comes by to help her unpack boxes and paint her bedroom; she frets, “You can’t imagine what it’s like to be afraid of your own father.” Carlos provides support when Reggie decides to visit the architect, Villalobos (Fermi Reixach), who designed the house. He sensibly resists their insinuations (“I just draw the plans!”), but the kids make him feel guilty too, reminding him that the folks who gave him the measurements for these plans were sinister.
It’s easy to see why she turns outside the nuclear family, as when Reggie does ask mom for help, Maria shuts her down, warning, “Don’t go getting paranoid.” Olin’s signature combination of seething passion and cool detachment makes Maria’s frustrated distractedness at least halfway convincing: no one in her right mind would be investing emotionally in this family, though it’s not clear why she’s moved to Spain with Mark, where she works a night shift and avoids hubby when he starts playing with knives, axes, and drills.
When, after a particularly raucous episode of pounding and scraping, Reggie finds Mark skulking at Paul’s door, she confronts him: “Dad, what’s wrong with you!?” She’s the only character in sight who believes Paul’s complaints that bad spirits are taking his pencils and swarming him in his room. “They never go away,” says the boy, “they only hide… They live in the dark.” Helpfully, the movie grants you a view of these shadowy little spirits (alluded to as “larvae”), who resemble — you guessed it — the still missing children, which means they’re about Paul’s height and their ghostly fingers coming at his neck are more than a little creepy. Too bad Reggie also believes that grandpa Albert is the proper family member in whom to confide her fears. Has she never seen a scary movie?
While Darkness is built on predictable plot turns, these are, in truth, the least of its problems. Even using these clichés — the scary house, the demented dad, the occult background, the relentless thunderstorms — all ideas that have shaped hundreds of films in the past, this one can’t conjure a cogent storyline. Ooky ambiguity is one thing. Incoherence is another.