Remember the Tom Hanks comedy “The Money Pit,” where a couple moves into a fixer-upper and soon after are set upon by a whole load of hilarious home-improvement hijinx? Things eventually end up alright for them in the end, with White Lion playing on their lawn and Shelly Long happily ensconced in her new home — but things might not have gone so well for the amateur contractors had they had a few ghosts milling about the joint. Why? The undead simply don’t like renovation.
A structure with a “structure”, the haunted house movie’s demands are particularly specific: first and foremost, we need a predated nasty event to give the house its spirit. Then we need some idle time for the spirit to stew and ferment, and finally we need to introduce a fresh bunch of faces to the house who will no doubt try to repaint and refurbish it, and through their innocent home improvement efforts unearth the horrifying terror lurking beneath the floorboards. There is a brief period of investigation, the original murder is solved, and things return to normal (or the assholes from “the city” move away).
Though the Spanish-made thriller “Darkness” by general standards sticks to this framework, it does manage to bring some fresh ideas to what might otherwise seem a worn-out genre. I personally love haunted house films and haunted houses in general, probably because I hate cleaning and would likely feel justified in neglecting housework if there were an invisible killer always trying to knock me off ladders and shove me out of streaky windows. “Darkness” thankfully reinforces the dangers of home improvement, and along the way is able to provide some pretty effective scares and creepy atmosphere.
The film starts out by letting us know that a) this is a haunted house movie; b) this haunted house boasts dead children; and c) we will be annoyed to tears for the next 90 minutes due to frequent deafening music cues punctuating stretches of near-complete silence. This is a particularly annoying element for me – I would rather a film be silent than overscored, and personally feel that scare cues are about the cheapest way to get a jump out of someone. If it’s used occasionally and effectively (as in “Tourist Trap”, or “Psycho”), then I’m fine with it. But if smash-cutting and the sudden scraping of what sounds like 2000 violins crammed in a public toilet are the means to which you must resort to get under your audience’s skins, you should probably revisit your script.
Fortunately, despite the clumsy over-scoring, “Darkness” is otherwise pretty solid. The story goes something like this: the plucky, otherworldly-looking Anna Paquin (“X-Men”, “The Piano”) plays Regina, an American-born teenager whose Spanish-born parents have relocated the family to a country house back in their native land (not to worry, everyone in this Spain “speaka the English”). A bit pissed about being yanked out of school in her senior year to get dropped into rural Iberia, Regina soon has bigger problems to deal with: namely, her little brother Paul is despondent and developing odd bruises, and her father (the “don’t call me Conan O’Brien” Iain Glen) is relapsing into an apparently dangerous mental illness that her mother (the fabulously cold and set-upon Lena Olin) refuses to acknowledge. As dad gets weirder, home improvement projects like repainting and repaneling the stairs reawaken a band of 6 ghost children that were apparently killed at the house 40 years prior. It turns out that dear old dad (Glen) was the 7th intended victim but he escaped into the woods, bloodied and with enough emotional baggage to propel a century’s worth of Lifetime Movies of the Week.
As Paquin dutifully goes about trying to discover the source of the house’s ickiness (she can’t see the wicked chilluns but can tell there’s somehing up), things start getting stranger with dad, and they turn to her grandpapa (a doctor) for help. She also begins a surprisingly mature relationship with a local boy, a photographer who genuinely seems to like her despite the fact that she’s American and incredibly attractive and agrees to help her investigate the house. Their search leads to a creepy old man who was involved with the design of the house, an old photo of three creepy skinny men with sunglasses, and of course, a trip to the local Casa of Records to look up the plans of the building. While this phase of the haunted house flick is generally the most tedious (we know they’re going to come up with something – can’t we hurry this along?!), here it’s kept somewhat fresh by the continued escalation of the condition of both her father and little brother, who really aren’t doing well, and the killer performance of Olin, whose ice-queen routine makes Martha Stewart look downright bubbly by comparison.
Happily, things will soon take a pronounced left turn, and through a few incredibly intense sequences, things are revealed to be very different than we may have originally been led to believe. I won’t give anything away because it’s really quite delicious. Suffice to say that things get very, very ugly, and no amount of spackle and drywall can cover up some of the damage that’s done in this joint. There’s some blood, some very well-executed scary scenes, and yes – lots more belligerent music cues. But by the third act, when the well-timed Total Eclipse takes place, plunging the house into total darkness (which we believe may give the ghosts their power), the tension is sufficiently amped for a very creepy climax, and the resolution is both appropriate and disturbing.
I will warn you, though — if you’re not a fan of plot points being revealed through crayon drawings, this one won’t be for you. “Darkness” does cash in a heap of spooky ghost movie cliches (scary storms, old pictures, exploring the dark house with candles), which some people will no doubt find annoying. But if you make the allowance that this is a Spanish take on the Hollywood ghost movie, with Swedish and Australian leads (much in the way that “The Others” was a South American take on the Hollywood ghost movie set in Scotland with an Australian; or “The Ring” was a Hollywood take on the Japanese take on the Hollywood ghost movie, set in Seattle with an Australian), it’s a little easier to let these more tired elements slide — I certainly think the last 20 minutes more than make up for it.
If darkness were the only problem with this house, some track lighting would be the low-cost solution. But as is generally the case with haunted house movies, this home has far worse things wrong with it than poor exposure. If creepy kiddies, domestic chaos, and Spanish people speaking English are your cup of tea, try trading spaces with this joint for ninety minutes – you won’t be disappointed.