Darkness: Unrated Edition (DVD)

Somebody turn on the lights.

When cult director Jaume Balaguero (The Nameless) and actress Anna Paquin (X-Men) teamed on a dark and gloomy haunted house movie, all signs pointed to a surefire hit. But the film unceremoniously debuted in theaters on Christmas Day in 2004, during a busy and competitive December. Lost amid a sea of Oscar hopefuls, the film quickly faded into the Darkness of its title. Now, there’s a brand new “unrated version” on store shelves. Will this spook-fest rise from the dead on DVD?

Regina (Paquin) and her family have moved from America to Spain, where they’ve spent three months getting settled. But one night, she hears strange sounds while in the bathtub. Her little brother Paul (Stephen Enquist) notices objects around his room disappearing. Dad Mark (Iain Glen, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) becomes obsessed with remodeling the house, and with the old artifacts he finds hidden behind the walls. Mom Maria (Lena Olin, Chocolat) tries to keep her family together as some strange behavior and odd occurrences keep happening.

After a handful of frightening and potentially life-threatening events, Regina becomes convinced that some sort of supernatural evil lurks inside the house; one that might be after her little brother. With time running out, she desperately seeks help from someone who believes her. But even more secrets are waiting to be uncovered before the night is over.

Many viewers have quickly dismissed it as a “bad movie,” but Darkness has a lot going for it. This is mostly due to some seriously ominous atmosphere. The whole film is drenched in blacks and dark greens, so you’re never sure just what is around that corner or at the end of that shadowy hallway. Supernatural elements are introduced early on, but it is still a slow burn to the finale, with just the right sound effect or background movement to hint at something sinister just outside our view.

Once the final credits roll, however, all the fear and intensity fades. Instead, viewers will instantly pick the movie apart, wondering why certain events happened and why characters acted the way they did. It’s all scares, but not much plot. And as many film fans have already noted, there are similarities to previous thrillers, such as The Shining, The Others, and The Ring. These influences are so obvious they distract from the story. Viewers should be sweating with fear, but instead they remember that they’ve already seen a famous shot of two freaky-looking little girls standing at the end of a hallway.

The movie starts out by using water as a symbol of the supernatural. This is hardly a new idea, but Balaguero obviously has great fun with the imagery. Regina gets the sense that something is wrong when in the bathtub or while swimming. Rain falls eerily onto windows and off of a mysterious stranger’s umbrella. Unfortunately, all these delightfully creepy visuals are forgotten in the second half of the film, once the narrative really takes off. This sort of thing occurs throughout the film. Ideas or visual elements are introduced, only to be forgotten and never explained. Similarly, many decisions made by the characters, especially during the finale, seem out of character and will leave viewers asking “Why would he/she do that?” over and over. In short: There’s a lot of build-up, but little payoff.

Not all of the blame can be placed on the writers and directors. Despite a good cast, the acting here is not all it could be. Paquin goes through the movie with three emotions: worried, worried, and more worried. Glen, meanwhile, chews half the scenery in this haunted house, transforming from Ward Cleaver to Jack Torrence in a heartbeat. During his “intense” scenes, he’s all bug-eyed and clenchy-necked, as if to say to the audience, “Look how psycho I can be!” Olin does what she can as the mother trying to keep her family together. But Paquin, as our hero, has the same motivation, which doesn’t leave Olin much to work with.

But despite the film’s many flaws, Balaguero knows what he’s doing behind the camera, and it shows on the DVD. Picture quality is razor sharp, with deep, rich blacks and vibrant colors when applicable. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is also excellent, making full use of the surrounds, so you’re never sure which speaker the next mysterious whisper will come from. A French 2.0 track and French and Spanish subtitles are also included.

There are a lot of rumors out there about this movie. Some say the film was completed years ago and sat on a shelf until being released in 2004. Others say there was constant strife between the director and the studio, leading to curious choices in the editing room. There are even suspicious-sounding rumors about a four-hour NC-17 version. Unfortunately, these will have to remain rumors for the time being, because none of this is mentioned on the short featurette included on the disc. Instead, you’ll find sound bites from the actors and an over-too-quick look at how most of the special effects were created simply and practically in front of the camera, with little to no CGI. The only other extras are the theatrical trailer and teaser, and trailers for Dimension releases Sin City and Cursed.

In case you’re wondering, there are not many differences between this and the theatrical, or PG-13, version of the film. This one has more bloody shots, which is odd considering it’s not an overly gory film. Also, the theatrical version doesn’t have the big, bad word that rhymes with “truck.”

It’s a “roller coaster ride” movie. Horror fans will delight in the atmosphere and tension, but the lack of a coherent story will leave them frustrated.

The Verdict

The court recommends a rental. Watch it with the lights off and the sound turned up. Just try not to think too much about it afterwards.

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