The Darkness (2016)
92 min., rated PG-13.
For Australian director Greg McLean—he of 2005’s savagely grisly gut-wrencher “Wolf Creek,” underseen killer-croc thriller “Rogue” from 2007, and his debut’s equally visceral 2014 sequel “Wolf Creek 2”—“The Darkness” is his first studio venture, and it’s an unfortunate misfire. The premise of a vacationing family unknowingly bringing home a supernatural force from a sacred Native American cave is a perfectly creepy hook on which to spring for a horror movie, but telling a story, generating dread, or even staging an effective jolt seem to elude McLean this time. Even if the film’s failure is yet another case of test screening-influenced studio tampering, it would be a moot point because “The Darkness” ultimately falls on the side of amazingly dull and indistinguishable. It almost makes one long for the dozen other mediocre copies of this supernatural horror formula.
On a camping trip in the Grand Canyon, architect Peter (Kevin Bacon) and now-sober Bronny Taylor (Radha Mitchell) enjoy their time with their two kids and another family. When their autistic son, Mikey (David Mazouz), breaks away from his teenage sister, Steph (Lucy Fry), on a trail, he falls through the sand into a cave. There, he finds five ancient, symbol-marked stones that he takes and puts in his backpack. Once the Taylors arrive home, Bronny sniffs a rancid odor and keeps finding the sinks running. She assumes Mikey is the culprit behind the wasting of water, but he blames it on his imaginary friend “Jenny.” Then sooty handprints begin appearing in the house, the neighbor’s dog won’t stop barking, and Mikey somehow starts a fire without having access to the matches. Might the youngest Taylor be experiencing a possession from the spirits of the Anasazi Indian tribe? Ding, ding, ding!
Co-written by Shayne Armstrong, Shane Krause and director Greg McLean, “The Darkness” seems as if it will deftly thread familial strife into a haunted-house picture with mystical phantoms but just muddles the mixture and generically takes the same genre steps. It is set up that every family member has his and her own self-destructive flaws. Bronny used to be an alcoholic but now has her sobriety to show for it, while Peter at one time had an affair and is soon tempted by a college grad new to his company, only to place a major strain on his and Bronny’s marriage. Steph also has an eating disorder, still unbeknownst to her parents. These seemingly important character details would seem to serve some purpose and then end up not mattering very much in the long run. Attempts at frights are feeble at best. Steph waking up to an animal hovering over her in bed and Bronny seeing a shadow walk past her while taking a bath are as creepy as the film almost gets, but each set-piece lacks a satisfying payoff. The timing necessary to make even a jump scare work is also botched, and not doing the editor any favors is Tom Oliver's hazy cinematography. Bone-tired plot conveniences abound, too, like good old Movie Internet Search Engines acting as exposition for the characters and the audience, as well as a handy Mexican healer (Alma Martinez) who happens to be a friend of a friend.
Take away the Anasazi ghosts and "The Darkness" might have been better off as a straight family drama. No strangers to the horror genre, the better-deserving Kevin Bacon and Radha Mitchell certainly seem invested in their roles but then look woefully lost once the dopey mumbo-jumbo takes over. Their Peter and Bronny take an awfully long time to realize something is wrong with their son, particularly Peter, and when Bronny notices something ominous in a photo on their Grand Canyon trip, she fails to relay it to anybody. Lucy Fry (2014’s “Vampire Academy” and the upcoming “Wolf Creek” TV series) and David Mazouz (TV’s “Gotham”) fare just okay as the kids. Also, of all people, Paul Reiser bafflingly pops up as Peter’s piggish boss.