*** This review may contain portal opening spoilers ***
On a family holiday at the Grand Canyon a young boy with autism takes five black pebbles marked with symbols. These stones belonged to the Anasazi tribe and by removing them he inadvertently releases supernatural forces into his home.
Not to be confused with Jaume Balagueró's Darkness (2002) talented director/writer Greg McLean of sleeper hit film Wolf Creek and underrated killer croc flick Rogue offers a supernatural horror in the vein of Poltergeist and Amityville Horror including their remakes.
What really works in McLean's favour is the Taylor family is not made-up of the stereo type character models synonymous with the genre. No stranger to mainstream horror Kevin Bacon returns to genre looking fittingly pasty and washed out as a former philandering workaholic father Peter who is determined to change his ways. Incidentally, his wife Bronny effortless played by the excellent Australian actress Radha Mitchell is a recovering alcoholic mum. To add to their rocky relationship, their son Mikey is autistic and their teenage daughter Stephanie is bulimic. The cast deliver the obvious challenges as well as underlying pressures of the family dynamics.
Worthy of note is Lucy Fry's Stephanie Taylor, the actress really portrays the teen angst and hysteria convincingly. Trian Long-Smith's Sammy Levin, the savvy, bright intern leaves an impression but is sorely underused possibly to avoid clichés with Bacon's Peter. Also writers McLean, Shayne Armstrong and Shane Krause effectively unfold some plot points, from Bronny's alcoholism to Peter's self obsessed boss Simon Richards played (notably) by Paul Reiser. Although a functional role, he gives background to Peter as well as moving the story forward with regards to his own family history.
The derivative setting of American wealthy suburbia is eye-rolling. Yet, you kind of get the impression that Australia's McLean, Armstrong and Shane Krause intended this to possibly be set in Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock) rather than the Grand Canyon, maybe to appease producers. Also there's a choppiness that suggests there was another cut. As it plays out McLean offers, taps inexplicably turning on and doors closing by themselves. There are shadows in the background, demonic shapes in photos. The demons with animal headdress are creepy enough along with a few jump scares including a dream sequence with a wolf and a nasty dog attack. Johnny Klimek's music is particularly notable with it tribal-like beats and the sound design peaks when spiritual healing Hispanic women Teresa and granddaughter Gloria (salient Ilza Rosario) try to 'cleanse' the home Tangina Barrons' (Zelda Rubinstein) style.
The corresponding mystical stone pebbles to each animal, wolf, snake, dog, crow, cow to their five un-rested spirits (with excellent earthy costumes) which the Anasazi tribe used to keep them at bay is an interesting element but like the family set-up there's little pay- off apart from lessons – 1. A family should stick together no matter what 2. Don't remove items from an ancient cave or you'll unleash vicious demons that will break up your family, take your child or send you mad. To McLean's credit we get to see each animal practically (rather than CGI) but disappointingly we never get to see the bull. Thankfully an attack on Mikey's grandmother's cat tastefully takes place off screen.
Considering this feature is based on a true story that was relayed to McLean the build up follows all the usual horror tropes, things going bump in the night, investigating the cause, calling in the spiritual help and so on. There's even Exorcist homages with noises in the attic and Mikey's Mr Howdy-like imaginary friend Jenny. As the story develops the special effects also increase. While the portals, shadows, black hand prints and swirling clouds are finely executed as with many paranormal horrors the effects driven closing undermine the grounded set up. Instead of CGI for CGI's sake it may have worked in its favour for the family to physically race to return the stones.
In true late 70s and 80's style during the end credits there's a shot leaving it open for a follow up or putting it to rest. Either way while it doesn't tread any new ground in terms of supernatural horror, those unfamiliar with the aforementioned supernatural films will certainly get a kick out of this and for old hats there's the alternative family set-up. That said, given McLean's creativity and originality with previous works this has too many moments of déjà vu and not enough scares to give The Darkness its own legs despite the well developed family drama foundation.
Overall, worth checking out if only for the performances and demon costume design.