The Darkroom (2006) (DVD)

The advent of digital photography makes this movie less scary.

There are many kinds of amnesia, and the movies love them all. You’ve got your anterograde amnesia, in which there is no long-term memory, so the mind can only remember the events of the last few minutes. You’ve got your retrograde amnesia, in which you can’t remember anything from before the event that caused the amnesia. You’ve got your traumatic amnesia, in which the mind blocks out a moment of extreme pain or distress. You’ve got a form of amnesia brought on by alcohol use, the technical term for which is “Korsakoff’s Amnesia,” but the rest of us usually call it “the morning after St. Patrick’s Day.” And you’ve got Hollywood’s favorite, global amnesia, in which the amnesiac cannot remember anything about him- or herself.

Why bring all this up? Because The Darkroom is about an amnesiac character, and because I like people to think I’m smart.

A young man with no memory is discovered walking alone on a country road, his hands covered with blood. Years later, this amnesiac (Reed Diamond, Good Night, and Good Luck) is approached by a doctor (Ellie Cornell, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers) with a new drug that could enhance his memory. Instead, it gives him strange, violent hallucinations. Afraid of what he might have done in his past and that it might happen again, the amnesiac flees from his hospital home and hides out among the city’s homeless.

Although he wants to be left alone, our memory-loss hero befriends a teen boy, Stanley (Shawn Pyfrom, Desperate Housewives), after protecting him from some bullies. Stanley has a mystery of his own to figure out. His stepfather (Greg Grunberg, Heroes) is acting strangely, acting out against his mother (Lucy Lawless, Battlestar Galactica), going on long walks at night, and spends long hours in his locked darkroom. Stanley enlists the amnesiac in finding out stepdad’s sinister secret. But will this bring back memories better left buried?

Why do so many movie characters—many more than actual people—suffer from amnesia? Although amnesia is rare in real life, there’s something about it that most of us can relate to. As children, we’re fascinated with hearing about ourselves when we were little, before we could remember. In most fictional stories about amnesia, the amnesiac has a quest to recover that missing piece of his or her psyche, and in doing so reclaim a piece of his or her identity and rediscover his or her place in the world. We’re all, in our own ways, questioning our personal identities and searching for where we belong. We all hope for that same moment of realization in which we learn who we truly are, such as when the amnesiac finally uncovers that lost memory, so that the world finally makes sense.

The nameless hero of The Darkroom has another mystery to worry about beyond his shadowy past. Stanley tenaciously seeks out this guy’s friendship over and over, until he has no choice to help the kid investigate his sneaky stepdad. Although he spends most of the movie as a passive character, he walks through every scene with some brewing intensity, keenly watching everything around him. Greg Grunberg and Lucy Lawless both play against type in their roles, so fans of their TV roles will be in for a surprise to what they’re up to here. Shawn Pyfrom is also good, as is Erin Foster (The O.C.) in a small but important role.

The tone here is more cerebral, rather than straight-out horror. Although there are plenty of ghoulish sights to behold, such as bloody half-naked girls and a filth-covered mud monster, the big surprises are the many twists in the plot. Savvier movie fans will be able to figure out the shocker long before the characters do, but it’s a nicely structured plot nonetheless. And then, once everything has been revealed, there’s one more little twist waiting for viewers. It’s not groundbreaking screenwriting or filmmaking, but it makes for an entertaining enough watch.

The picture and audio quality here is fine, with no immediate or obvious flaws. We’re also treated to an informative behind-the-scenes featurette with plenty of cast and crew interviews, followed by a great commentary director Mike Hurst and writer/producer Mark A. Altman, the duo who also brought us Room 6. It does repeat some info from the featurette, but it also guides viewers through any clues they might have missed, as well as plenty of anecdotes about the movie’s “guerilla filmmaking” production. There’s also some partially-interesting deleted scenes and trailers for a few other Anchor Bay DVDs.

It’s nice to see an indie horror flick do something more than the usual zombies and/or vampires. For that reason, and for some nice work by a great cast, give this one a rental.

The Verdict

There are worse ways to spend an hour and a half. Not guilty.

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