For a film that begins like the introduction to a domestic drama, beset with the heavy onslaught of autism, bulimia, alcoholism, and infidelity, it is easy to forget during it's hour and forty minutes long showing that 'The Darkness' (dir. Greg McLean) is, in fact, a horror film. I would go so far to say that, with the horror element removed, it could have been a drama: delving into the much more interesting exploration of a far more human darkness.
That's not to say that this film is irrevocably dire as a film. On the contrary, as acting ability and star power goes, 'The Darkness' conveys a suburban state of duck-like existence perfectly: calm on the surface and paddling like crazy underneath. The film begins with Peter (Kevin Bacon) and Bronny (Radha Mitchell) playing Happy Families with a couple and their son: the trio in question being utterly irrelevant to the plot and never seen again. The unfortunate exposition of the plot, through said irrelevant teenager of said equally as irrelevant parents, serves more as a step-by-step synopsis than ominous foreshadowing of what's to come. In one minute of being an insensitive jerk to an autistic child, this teenager sums up the entire plot, which takes away any sense of aplomb gained from discovering the who, the why, and the how that accompanies a thriller film.
At some point during the course of the film, the director appears to hover between yet another 'Poltergeist' remake and an attempt at the 'The Ring' style of cinematography. What it results in is an awkward amalgamation that never seems to quite sustain itself in either style. What should be a terrifying display of telekinetic poltergeist activity turns into a series of domestic ASBOs that are, frankly, more annoying than terrifying. Honestly, they could have replaced the spirits with squatters and had the same series of incidents occur. And the inclusion of the obligatory venture into the creepy loft, with added dolls and Wendy houses, becomes more of a gimmick than a plot device: it gives the unfortunate sense of trying to tick off boxes in a manner that would only be successful if done through parody.
And unfortunately, it is the horror clichés that embed themselves within the plot. There is an innocent game of Hide and Seek that is, clearly, going to switch from "surprise, it's your son" to "surprise, it's your friendly-neighbourhood demon" at some point in time. Or how children seem to gain sudden ninja-like abilities to make their way up into a very creaky loft without being detected by their parents. Insert jump-scare here. Added to numerous other common tropes - namely an ongoing trend of terrible parenting - and 'The Darkness' reads like an ode to horror, but lacking any substance or actual praise of the genre. As the horror aspect goes, the clichés interspersed between the long stretches of nothingness change it from scare-fest to scare-social gathering.
However, to take a break from the negativity, the acting was noticeably on point. Mostly because there was less of a horror film quality to it and more of a venture into family drama. The fight between Bronny and her daughter Stephanie (Lucy Fry) when she discovered her bulimia was startlingly real; it was almost uncomfortable to watch with the raw quality of pain, distress, and shame exuding off both actors. Anasazi demons? Pfft, who cares? My attention was entirely disengaged from the supernatural and locked into the very real struggle between a mother - with her own demons - and a daughter with an eating disorder.
David Mazouz (of 'Gotham' fame) did a delightful job conveying an autistic child who struggles to communicate, finding a way of doing so through an imaginary friend; that turns out not to be so imaginary. What this film managed to touch on briefly was a reality of living with autism. There was an absent father who was frightened of his own child; a sister who was jealous and frustrated with the attention given to her brother; a mother who refused to acknowledge exactly how troubled her child was. Yes, the horror trope dictates that an external element inflicts terror on the 'innocent' family, but if that element had been removed - albeit changing the genre entirely - 'The Darkness' was close to venturing into truly enrapturing and important territory.
It is fair to assume that that is, perhaps, the true message of the film; that real darkness exists within us as human beings. However, the film fails to make such a profound statement by resorting back to a cliched disclaimer that the ' evil spirits' made me do it. You know, that old excuse. Bulimia, alcoholism, affairs, and even autism become intrinsically linked to this alien entity; enough so that they can be essentially 'cured' of their ailments, their darkness, by defeating the supernatural. What could have been so much more - in how the Darkness signified the innate flaws of people - was returned to a good guys vs. bad guys scenario. Guess what? Good guys win. Surprise.
Again, it is not a terrible horror film. It would simply do itself more credit if it severed ties from horror entirely. But, really, my pessimism stems from the wasted potential; that it could have delved into something truly meaningful rather than showing mental illness as something 'other'. Instead, we have the profound comment that, naturally: "It's not ghosts. It's autism." If only the NHS had that one on a poster.