Stars: Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Morrison, Radha Mitchell, Lucy Fry, David Mazouz, Ming-Na Wen, Tara Lynne Barr | Written by Greg McLean, Shane Krause, Shayne Armstrong | Directed by Greg McLean
Australian filmmaker Greg McLean has been nothing but impressive since bursting onto the scene with Wolf Creek back in 2005, which introduced the horror world to a brand new icon in the form of outback serial killer Mick Taylor. McLean followed up his debut feature with Rogue, one of the very best man-eating crocodile films ever made, and he subsequently brought Mick back in Wolf Creek 2. His latest film is his first one set in America, and this time he’s delving into supernatural suburbia.
Written by McLean, Shane Krause, and Shayne Armstrong, The Darkness centers on the Taylor family: father Peter (Kevin Bacon!), mother Bronny (Radha Mitchell), teenage daughter Stephanie (Lucy Fry) and young son Michael (David Mazouz). While on a camping vacation in the Grand Canyon, Michael comes across a set of strange rocks in an underground cave and decides to stuff them into his backpack, unknowingly bringing evil Native American spirits back home with him. And that’s just the beginning of a waking nightmare for the once-happy family.
Thinking back on Greg McLean’s previous three features, there’s one thing that not only ties them all together, but is also the very thing I personally appreciate most about them: strong characters. In Wolf Creek, McLean spent a good portion of the film investing us in the characters before they ever came face-to-face with the villain, and the same can be said of Rogue. As for Wolf Creek 2, the film put the spotlight squarely on Mick Taylor, who is undoubtedly McLean’s most compelling character to date.
Why do I bring this up? Because The Darkness, true to McLean’s style, is concerned with the characters being terrorized by the paranormal activity almost more than the activity itself. Despite the fact that they initially appear to be the perfect suburban family, the Taylors quickly turn out to be one of the most interesting family units in a Hollywood horror movie in some time, and well-worn marital archetypes like past infidelities and struggles with alcoholism only scratch the surface of their dynamic.
At the center of the story is Michael, a young boy who is quite unlike the traditional “creepy kid” you often find in horror movies. Sure, he has an unseen imaginary friend like they always do, but we soon realize that Michael is autistic, which takes the story down some pretty interesting paths. In the early going, for example, his parents perceive the strange activity in their home as Michael’s condition simply getting worse, making his autism the perfect distraction from what’s really going on. And lest you fear that the film is exploitative in any way, Michael’s autism actually turns out to be an empowering representation of the disorder, which is very new ground for the horror genre to cover.
As for teenage Stephanie, she too has a disorder that you don’t ever really see represented in horror movies, and its inclusion in the story adds another welcome layer to the family drama that is very much put center stage in The Darkness. The Taylor family becomes one worth caring about and rooting for, and that’s the one thing about Greg McLean’s fourth feature that makes it feel like, well, a Greg McLean film.
Unfortunately, all the pesky supernatural stuff that happens to the family turns The Darkness into the sort of horror movie that is well beneath the already established talents of its director.
If The Darkness is at its best when it’s focused on family drama, it’s at its worst whenever the Native American spirits start acting up. Smartly, McLean keeps all those generic thrills and chills to a minimum, at least throughout the majority of the film, but he never quite manages to distract you long enough to make you forget you’re watching a Hollywood-made horror movie. And by the time everything comes to a head in the corny and unsatisfying final act, you may forget all the good that came before it. It’s just not a very good horror movie, though there is a far better drama struggling to get out of it.
The takeaway from The Darkness, more than anything, is that interesting characters go a long way when it comes to elevating an otherwise generic horror story. That may be the only personal stamp Greg McLean really puts on Blumhouse’s latest, but it’s at least a stamp that sets it apart from many of their recent outings. Yes, this one is ultimately quite forgettable, but it’s got a whole lot more going for it than most Hollywood horror movies we’ve seen up on the big screen these last several years.
Dare I say, it’s a better Poltergeist remake than the Poltergeist remake.