Overview: An autistic child unknowingly unleashes evil upon his family when he removes ancient cursed stones from a cave on vacation. Blumhouse Tilt/Universal Pictures; 2016; Rated PG-13; 92 Minutes.
The Child: Michael Taylor (David Mazouz) is an autistic adolescent who uncovers five stones, each cursed by a demon entity from Anasazi lore, and smuggles them into his family’s suburban home. The immediate manifestation of strange events are barely supernatural and not altogether menacing, yet the subsequent frustration and strain felt by Michael’s father Peter (Kevin Bacon) his sister Stephanie (Lucy Fry), and, in particular, his mother Bronny (Radha Mitchell) is intense and measurable. While Michael seems to warmly welcome the invisible presence of the at-first just ornery visitors, the rest of the family each struggle mightily. In this sense, The Darkness opens as a metaphor that explores the challenges of raising a neuroatypical child (a sort of extension to the figurative reading of Jennifer Kent’s single-motherhood horror/drama The Babadook), and surprisingly, this wide release theatrical horror film deftly handles that early metaphor. Even more surprising, this isn’t the film’s only or even its most interesting metaphor.
The Family: The Taylor family feels like one of those back car window stick figure decals brought to life, a mom and dad and son and daughter living in an exceptionally middle-class home with one of the most recognizably white European names. It’s no accident that Peter is a large structure architect and his home and family are terrorized by the dark spirits from the lore of the native inhabitants of the land atop of which he builds. In non-supernatural terms, the Taylors are already victim to the unspeakable horrors that indicate a conceptual failure of the Western domestic family unit within a post-industrial capitalist society. The teenage daughter suffers from an eating disorder in response to Western beauty standards. The stay-at-home mother lives a constant struggle as a recovering alcoholic. And the work-obsessed father is nearly absent due to his obsession with his job, and his non-financial function is in danger of becoming even less significant when his faith to his wife is tested by his evident attraction to one of his subordinate architects (again, I’d argue not coincidentally a young woman of color).
And then the native demons first manifest as structural failures within the physical household. The faucets run without being turned on. Dangerous animals break into the residence as domestic walls prove useless at withholding nature. And dark hand prints stain the pristine white walls. When the family begins to openly discuss their situation, they use terms like “karma” and describe the darkness as coming from “within the household.” Michael more than once refers to the destructive arrival of a “blue star,” alluding to a prophesied event in Hopi legend and perhaps also to a type of Wiccan belief, a disruption of Judeo-Christian normalcy. Ultimately, the Taylor’s crisis is averted by the involvement of an alternative religion ritual performed by Hispanic faith healers (recommended, again perhaps not coincidentally, by one of the film’s non-white characters). The whole story is a conceptual exercise in social apocalypse, indicating the ruin of the Western family institution from the roots of its genocidal American establishment.
The Demons: It’s unfortunate then that The Darkness stumbles over this construct in the third act, where horror convention and expectation demand that this figurative reading be turned into literal fear. But The Darkness never really figures out how to be scary. The ghostly apparitions are never confidently conceived, the hand prints on the wall offer nothing new, and the jump scares are telegraphed by their standard other-side-of-of-the-open-door setup. The final chapter offers a direct (but unfocused) look at the haunting demons and the creature design is seems half-cocked and unmemorable and the anti-climactic act of generic resolution erases the strength of its earlier layered text.
Overall: Director Greg McLean of the celebrated Wolf Creek and Wolf Creek 2 has succeeded in providing The Darkness with what his earlier films lacked (thematic complexity) but failed to carryover what made those films fan favorites (screen terror).
The Darkness hits DVD/Blu-Ray on September 9.
Featured Image: Blumhouse Tilt/Universal Pictures