THE DARKNESS, released without a press screening, and on Friday the Thirteenth, is everything you’d expect. It’s a tame and insultingly derivative version of POLTERGEIST, right down to the sulky teenage daughter and the darling little kid who sees spirits. That the little kid is a boy, not a blond cherub of a girl, and that the boy is autistic, which we are told makes him especially prey to spirits, is anything but an improvement. One can, and should, interpret it as a slander against those with autism by those who want them to be perceived as creepy.
It all begins, as many nightmares do, with a family car trip, this one to the Grand Canyon where our nuclear family learns that spirits haunt the site, and that there is a city hidden beneath the magnificent rock formations. Rock formations, we are reminded, formed by violent geologic activity. The son Mikey (David Mazouz ) wanders off when his sister, Stephanie (Lucy Fry), goes climbing with the cute boy she’s just met. That’s when Mikey tumbles into a secret chamber where he finds the fateful ritual stones that will cause all the trouble, and removes them from their arranged in a careful semi-circle.
Because Mikey is expected to act oddly, neither Mom (Radha Mitchell) nor Dad (Kevin Bacon) give it a second thought when their son becomes overly attached to his backpack (where the stone reside), or when he announces the arrival of a new friend that only he can see. Only Stephanie complains, but that’s more about her eating disorder and the grimy handprints she assumes that Mikey has left on her bathroom mirror and on her bedspread.
It all plods along with for what seems like forever with nothing particularly supernatural happening as Mom and Dad bicker and fall into stony silences with one another. That doesn’t stop Mom from making a precipitous leap from autism to ghosts. We, of course, know she’s right, but all she has to go on is some odd sounds coming from the attic, and the fact that her very bright son has somehow gotten his hands on some matches. Naturally Dad is unconvinced that anything supernatural is going on, and soon is worrying about Mikey’s growing violence after he sets fire to a wall, and with Mom’s growing obsession with online videos about Native American demons coupled with her nascent alcoholism.
Suffice to say that it takes most of the film’s running time before anything actually happens that would convince Dad, which is when they bring in the psychic healer (Alma Martinez ) to cleanse the house. The which she does with every cliché imaginable, though her granddaughter/translator (Ilza Rosario ) does wave the eagle feather involved with an air of fierce conviction.
This is a film that is mostly exposition. Repetitive exposition at that. It’s a veritable gab fest with everyone looking grim and sniping at one another. What the Native Americans believed, how Mom and Dad’s marriage is crumbling, why Dad’s boss (Paul Reiser) is both a pig and a compassionate friend. Oddly, no one remarks on the turnaround in Stephanie’s attitude, going from sarcasm to little miss sunshine incarnate even though, as the exposition reminds us, the demons at work make their victims irritable before they do away with them.
.Indeed, the single most horrifying part of the film involves Stephanie storing her accumulated regurgitations under her bed. Neatly stored in plastic bags and bowls with burping lids. And the single most puzzling lapse in logic is why she wouldn’t have just regurgitated into the toilet bowl in her own private bathroom accessible only from her own private bedroom. As for the homage/stealing from POLTERGEIST, think infernal portal in the kid’s room and a trip to a hotel, neither of them as startling or as witty as that classic of horror. THE DARKNESS can’t even get that right.