Thursday, December 30, 2004

Darkness: Notes From Two Hours in the Dark

Jaume Balaguero’s Darkness, from a screenplay by Balaguero, Fernando De Filipe and Miguel Tejada-Flores, finally arrives on American shores a full two years after it debuted in Europe. Despite being made by a Spanish crew and filmmakers and shot entirely in Spain, this is an American film with English-speaking actors, much like Alejandro Almenabar’s The Others. Also like that film, Darkness is a supernatural horror suspense thriller that features creepy kids and the heroines who try to save them, with Anna Paquin filling the role here as Nicole Kidman did in the other.

Ms. Paquin is unique among her young actress peers in truly looking like the girl-next-door, seemingly more attainable, more genuinely likeable and down-to-earth then her like-aged statuesque model associates. As Regina, the teenaged daughter of an American family that relocates to an old, creaky Victorian house in the Spanish countryside, this accessibility helps an audience identify and side with her when the chips are down. Unbeknownst to her and her family, their house was the site of some unspeakable science experiments involving children on the night of a total eclipse forty years earlier. So when her 8 year-old brother Paul (Stephan Enquist) develops unexplainable bruises on his chest and her father Mark (Iain Glen) begins inexplicably banging holes in the walls with a sledge hammer, Regina, suspecting their new abode, springs into Nancy Drew mode with her hottie Spanish boyfriend (boyfriend? They had moved only three weeks earlier!) Carlos (Fele Martinez). Despite a blind-eye turned to these problems by her mother (weird bruises on my son? No big deal) Maria (Lena Olin) and her grandfather Albert (Giancarlo Giannini), Regina tracks down the haunted house’s crusty designer, Villalobos, for some answers. And so on.

Unfortunately for Ms. Paquin, down-to-earth looks aren’t everything; she sleepwalks through most of her lines, robbing the term “scream queen” of its vocal aspect. Indeed, I found myself wishing, at times, that I had stick to poke at the screen to make sure she was still participating. But to fault her fully would be a foolish miscalculation. Admittedly, I am not the biggest proponent of the horror film genre but I know cliché soup when I’m served it. Balaguero uses day-of-the-week placards to demarcate time and to map ascending points of suspense pressure. But the precious few moments in the film that approach horror intensity are immediately destroyed by a placard’s pronouncement of the next day, like a knife chopping possibility in one kill-shot. This same device was used more memorably in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining; but while we learn, early on, of the horrific atrocities committed in the Overlook Hotel, Balagureo feeds us no such story until we are halfway through his proceedings. Until that point we are left to nibble on shadowy figures crossing in front of the camera; disturbing images drawn in color pencil by a kid; echoing children’s laughter; heavy-shaky music-video-style camera work; shots of empty swings; wind-chimes; perpetual rain; unknown crazy guy standing in the rain and an X-files-like music. Cliché unto itself is not a fatal pill, merely just a dirty term used to decry influence. But cliché served alone without something original mutating from its scaly skin can prove, as it does in Darkness, to be poisonous.

By the time the credits rolled, I was left with more questions than answers about the film’s resolution. Sadly, some of those questions included: Why was I here? And, can’t they just warn me next time? If you want to spend two hours with darkness, I recommend doing so somewhere comfortable, watching the back of your eyelids.

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