Spooky house movies are as old as the horror genre itself: from 1932’s The Old Dark House onward, we’ve seen our cultural anxieties played out to the death within the elastic, seemingly living frame of the haunted house. A structure with a “structure”, the haunted house’s demands are particularly specific: first and foremost, we need a predated nasty event to give the house its spirit. Then we need some idle time for the spirit to stew and ferment, and finally we need to introduce a fresh bunch of faces to the house who will no doubt try to repaint and refurbish it, and through their innocent home improvement efforts unearth the horrifying terror lurking beneath the floorboards. There is a brief period of investigation, the source murder or insurrection is solved, and things return to normal (or the assholes from “the city” move away).
Though the Spanish-made thriller Darkness by general standards sticks to this framework, it does manage to bring some fresh ideas to what might otherwise seem a worn-out genre.
Directed by Jaume Balagueró, Darkness premiered in Spain in October 2002. It was later sold to Miramax for American distribution in 2003, but ended up being put on hiatus for over a year; it was eventually released in theaters in an edited, PG-13-rated cut in the United States on December 25, 2004.
Upon its initial release, Darkness received extremely negative reviews from both critics and general audiences. It currently holds a 4% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 53 reviews. It received an “F” CinemaScore, indicating overwhelmingly popular dislike. However, with the passage of time, fans have begun to warm up to this movie. If you check out the IMDb message boards, for instance, you will witness everything from tepid defense to outright praise for the pic.
Darkness starts out by letting us know that a) this is a haunted house movie; b) this haunted house boasts dead children; and c) we will be riding our volume controls for the next 90 minutes due to frequent deafening music cues punctuating stretches of near-complete silence (and damn, is this annoying). Fortunately, despite the clumsy over-scoring, Darkness is otherwise pretty solid.
The story goes something like this: Regina (played by young Anna Paquin) is a teenage girl who is basically a mother figure to her younger brother, Paul (played by Stephan Enquist). She does have two parents, mother Maria (played by Lena Olin) and father Mark (played by Iain Glen), but the household is hardly stable. The family has just moved to an isolated countryside home in Spain, where Mark grew up. Things seem to be going well as the family moves in, but they soon discover that the power frequently goes out due to the ancient wires within the house, or so they think. A local electrician finds nothing wrong, but Mark doesn’t buy it. Stranger things begin happening. Paul’s colored pencils begin moving by themselves, he wakes up with strange bruises around his neck, and Mark begins have near-fits of rage beyond his control. You can probably guess what’s going on here.
Indeed, the house holds a dark secret that is itching to come out. It’s haunted by it’s past events that were forever sealed within its foundation. Per the style at the time, we are handed scares in quick frightening collages and shadow lurkings. Unique in direction, the movie is chock full of ambiance imploring a style that combines traditional with modern, making it quite an effectual thriller .
Since Darkness, director Jaume Balagueró has subsequently evolved with each film he creates. His work on [REC] and [REC]2 is simply inspiring, with a small handful of others worth the watch. Like these, this film is a great indication of his approach.
In short, Darkness has garnered different reactions from general audiences over the years. So this is a movie you definitely have to judge for yourself. You may find yourself instantly hooked with the movie’s slow grind shadow-engulfing-visually-kinetic pacing. Others are on the fence, claiming it doesn’t move at a pace they are accustomed to. Others find its surprise ending to not meet their needs for closing up the package. And yes, those last two sentences are intentionally dripping with condescension.
If nothing else, Darkness demonstrates the overratedness of the word “The”. There’s another supernatural thriller, recently released, called The Darkness, and that one sucks. Let this be a lesson to all of you film titlers out there.
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