JUNE 16, 2012
I actually rented Darkness back when it came out on DVD in early 2005, but slept through most of it and never bothered to take another look. From what I had seen, I had determined it "boring" and confusing even before I had nodded off, and figured it wasn't for me (that it was a Spanish horror film in the vein of The Others, which I wasn't a fan of*, didn't help). But now that it's on Blu-ray, and my tastes have refined a bit - not to mention having since become a fan of director Jaume Balagueró, I figured it was time to watch it properly and hopefully come away a bigger fan.
Well, I accomplished that much, but I still don't think it's a particularly great movie. The story is quite interesting, and the acting talent is better than you'd usually see in a modern horror film (Anna Paquin and Lena Olin, plus the great Giancarlo Giannini), but Balagueró's script is muddled. It makes sense when you read a synopsis, but in the film itself it can be needlessly baffling at times, as if every other scene was missing or something. The father (Iain Glen), for example, keeps having these near-psychotic breakdowns, but then he'll appear fine again in the next scene, making it difficult to gauge his character. In some movies this might not be an issue, but in order for the ending to make any sense at all, you have to believe that he's a good guy and loved by his daughter, which the movie never gives us the chance to do. It's like Jack Torrance in the Kubrick version of The Shining - he's pretty much nuts from the day he sets foot in the Overlook, so it's hard to understand why Wendy loved him in the first place.
Before I continue - as I'm discussing "missing scenes" I should stress that this new Blu-ray from Echo Bridge is indeed the full 102 minute cut of the film, not the edited 88 minute version that Dimension released in theaters. There's no "unrated" tag or any indication of being an extended version, so it's worth pointing out, especially if you recall how the film was distributed on DVD originally - the PG-13 cut had blue colored artwork, the unrated had red. This is the unrated version, but it has the blue art. In short, hopefully no one remembers that a cut version even existed, because this just makes it even more confusing.
It's also a slow-burn in the guise of a haunted house movie, which requires a lot of audience faith to work. It starts off like every other haunted house flick, with the family moving into the isolated, giant house, and then things start happening and certain family members begin acting strangely, but nothing really happens until the film's final 20 minutes. Until then, it's just a loosely connected series of scenes of Glen freaking out, Paquin and her new boyfriend trying to find out more about the house, or Paquin's little brother doodling in his room. Every now and then Giannini shows up, channeling Udo Kier, but otherwise there isn't much to latch onto, especially as (again) Glen's character is hard to sympathize with.
There is one knockout sequence around the halfway point, however. The kid is doodling, Paquin is in the bathroom blow-drying her hair, and Glen is chopping potatoes while Olin nags him about his medication. Balagueró cuts back and forth between these three events with wonderful precision, heightening the tension by cutting from one to the next just as it seems something bad is about to happen, letting us wonder which will be the first to produce the expected scare. It's easily the most suspenseful sequence in the film; another one or two like it would have elevated this into "flawed gem" territory.
There's also a scene I realized is pretty much dead in newer horror films: a darkroom/photo developing sequence! We've all seen the type a million times: a character is developing photos in his red-lit darkroom, and as the photo develops he sees a clue or even identifies the murderer, and just as he turns to reveal his find to the other protagonists, he is either killed or falls into a false scare. But we never see these anymore, because no one uses actual film to take photos, so instead we get scenes of people digitally zooming into photos on their laptop (or on the camera itself), which aren't as interesting from a story perspective OR a technical one. The red light look is unnatural enough to put a viewer on edge, and I like when movies need experts to help out. Now everyone's a "photographer", so it's just not the same.
The Blu-ray has a pair of extras: a trailer hawking the original DVD release ("Starring X-Men's Anna Paquin!") and a fluffy making of that is of no use to anyone, unless they want to hear Olin explain that she probably won't watch the movie because she'll be too scared (I wonder if she said the same about Queen of the Damned). It also has a French and Spanish language track, but I should note it defaults to 2.0 DTS instead of 5.1 Dolby Digital, which is peculiar - make sure you switch it manually. There are also no subtitle options, which is a bit of a sore spot since some of the dialogue is quite soft-spoken, so it'd be nice to just flip on the subs during lengthy exposition speeches (like Giannini's 3rd act explanations) instead of fiddling with the volume. The transfer is quite nice though; Echo Bridge is doing much better with their Blu-rays compared to the ones that they put out last year.
This was Balagueró's second narrative feature after the similarly uneven The Nameless; had I seen them before his later work I might have been wary about those (the [Rec] films, Sleep Tight), so I'm glad I saw them later, just to see where he started. He's obviously improved quite a bit as a filmmaker, and both films are worth seeing for that and for their other highlights (if you can actually follow the story, the ending here is terrifically grim). But sadly that's the only real reason to recommend this one unless you're starved for Spanish horror (or a True Blood fan wanting to see what Paquin was like in a role that didn't require her to disrobe all the time).
What say you?
*Yeah, yeah, I know. I'm going to give it another shot later this year. It's in that weird place between being forgotten enough to qualify as a new HMAD entry and being remembered enough to have to be a "Non Canon" review. So I'm waiting until it's more forgotten.