First time Writer/Director Ray Gower wants you to think he’s a smart guy. He’s cast AMERICAN BEAUTY Thora Birch in his film not once, but twice, and like the tagline from that most acclaimed film—Ray Gower wants you to “look closer”. DARK CORNERS is trying to scratch below the surface of psychological horror. The problem lies in that what lies beneath is about as interesting as a freshman year psych class. Gower’s production is not quite a serial killer film and not quite surrealist cinema. What it is, is trying desperately to straddle some pencil-thin line between David Lynch and Christophe Gans—sort of SILENT HILL’S LOST HIGHWAY—and it’s headed blindly out-of-control for dead mans curve.
Birch plays Karen Clarke/Susan Hamilton. Susan is the blond-haired, blue-eyed princess of her own personal fairy tale. A lavish house, no discernible work issues and a doting beefcake husband (Christien Anholt) dot her sunshiny landscape. But, every fairy tale is salt and peppered with a touch of adversity and in Susan’s suburban dreamland; the dark cloud is her inability to conceive a child. With the added pressure of an upcoming bout of fertility treatments, Susan is having some awfully upsetting nightmares. Karen Clark is the occupier of these dark dreams. A doppelganger for Susan, Karen wears her black hair long and her eye make-up heavy. She passes away her days working in a mortuary and her restless nights in a dank and dirty apartment that looks like a left over set from one of the SAW films. Karen also has a problem when she sleeps. She wakes up with bruises and bloody lips and can’t recall anything that has happened. Both Karen and Susan inhabit a world that is home to a hooded serial killer—nicknamed the Night Stalker (a moniker that I can assume Richard Ramirez will take issue with). Both Karen and Susan believe that the Night Stalker is following them and threatening the lives of those they hold most dear.
In DARK CORNERS what is dream and what is reality is not as dark and light as the changing colors of Birch’s hair. The film’s promise lies in the audience determining which personality—Karen or Susan—is the real character and which is the dream life. If the film had stayed within these boundaries and not notched up a bizarre and utterly unnecessary ending that raises more questions than it answers, the movie, as a whole, might have worked. As it currently exists though, DARK CORNERS is an exercise in viewer frustration that culminates in a head shaking turn of events that—in it’s clunky awkward way—tries to hammer home some deep seeded meaning about the precious nature of life and karmic mystical doctrine. It’s the kind of self-absorbed and esoteric ending that filmmakers concoct to try and outwit audiences for no other purpose than to flex their superiority over the medium—it’s a cop out designed to screw with you—and it’s pointless.
If the twist is the crux of the films nuisance, than the second major problem is a component of both the scripting and the characterizations. Most of the performers in the film, Birch included, are clearly going through the motions. The chemistry between Susan and her husband David is virtually non-existent and it begins to seem that the reason the pair might not be able to conceive is that they can’t get worked-up enough about each other to even have sex. Add to that the barrage of 14-year-old-boy-sleaze-dialogue that is espoused by Susan’s middle-aged female co-worker and most viewers will be torn between nodding off and skipping chapters on the DVD player. And speaking of skipping, an additional technical problem with the film is that director Gower has a helluva hard time matching shots in individual scenes when he’s doing coverage. In close up, Birch seems to be in an entirely different emotional place than she was three seconds earlier in the long shot—and that happens one too many times—really taking its toll on the resonant impact of the scenes.
DARK CORNERS had a lot going for it, and the casting of Birch was the first step in the right direction. The film falters because even in its multi-dimensional scope, the actress has very little to do and that clearly shows through in the uninspired performance she puts forth. If it’s the ending that ruins the film, it is surly helped along by a battalion of bad judgment calls and editing flaws on behalf of rookie filmmaker Gower. It’s a harsh summation but like its title suggests, this is one project that would be better relegated to shadowy recesses of some forgotten video store shelf somewhere.