First published in Sight & Sound, July 2016
Synopsis: Camping with family and friends in the Grand Canyon, young, autistic Michael Taylor stumbles into a cave, and takes five sacred stones from the burial chamber within. Back in his suburban home, Michael talks and plays with new invisible friend Jenny who, he tells his mother Bronny, lives behind his bedroom wall. The neighbour’s pet dog constantly barks, doors unlock by themselves, and mysterious sounds are heard in the house, but the Taylors are distracted by personal issues: patriarch Peter, who once had an affair, is being drawn to new work colleague Sammy; teen daughter Stephanie is hiding an eating disorder; and Bronny is returning to her alcoholism. Yet after Michael apparently kills his grandmother’s cat and sets fire to the bedroom wall, Bronny realises that something unnatural is going. Her online search reveals that five ancient animal-spirit demons, entombed by the Anasazi beneath the Grand Canyon, if released turn families against one another and wreak destruction. Peter remains unconvinced – until he sees Stephanie attacked by a supernatural force. The Taylors turn to spiritualist Teresa and her daughter Gloria, recommended by Peter’s boss’ wife, to cleanse the house. In the ensuing psychic battle, Peter becomes locked with Michael in his bedroom, where the five spirits are taking the boy through a portal to the cave’s burial chamber. Unable to return the stones himself, Peter insists the spirits take him instead. Fearless, Michael manages to restore the stones, and the demons vanish with the portal.
Review: “1, 2, 3. 1, 2, 3.”
Michael Taylor (David Mazouz) likes to count. Fearless, not always communicative, and blessed (or cursed) with an ill-defined ability to ‘see different’, this autistic boy, with his unusual, often demanding behaviours, dominates and occasionally disrupts the workings of the Taylor household. Not that its other members lack problems of their own: Michael’s father Peter (Kevin Bacon) has strayed in the past and still struggles with fidelity, much as his wife Bronny (Radha Mitchell) continues to wrestle with her history of alcoholism, and their teenaged daughter Stephanie (Lucy Fry) tries to conceal her eating disorder. Which is to say that there are plenty of cracks in the Taylors’ family structure – and those fissures threaten to split right open after a trip to that ultimate geographical symbol of seismic divisions, the Grand Canyon. There, in the opening sequence of Greg McLean’s The Darkness, ‘Mikey’ falls into a buried cave and purloins five sacred stones which he then smuggles, along with their associated ancient evil, into the Taylors’ middle-class home.
If Michael is an American Alice, chasing a timepiece (a family friend’s watch) down into America’s dark underside, later, Bronny too, as she realises that there is something more than mere domestic tensions undermining her home, will fall into a rabbit-hole of online searches to unearth the film’s supernatural tectonics (a contrived merger of Anasazi demonology and autistics’ psychic sensitivity). This exposition, in all its bludgeoning repetition, eventually drowns out the psychological substrate that the film has at first worked so hard to establish, replacing it with the sound and fury that have come to be expected in today’s mainstream horror: the bumps in the night, the CGI intrusions, the pan-dimensional portals, the returns of the past.
As it happens, Michael Taylor shares his full name with the ‘Ocker’ arch-villain (played with jovial menace by John Jarratt) from McLean’s best known title Wolf Creek (2003) and its sequel Wolf Creek 2 (2013) – films whose ripped-from-the-headlines horror interrogates anxieties very specifically about Australian identity. Yet although The Darkness is also directed by McLean, written with fellow Australians Shayne Armstrong and Shane Krause, and includes in its cast the Antipodean Mitchell, there is nothing in the film itself that would lead viewers to imagine that they are watching anything other than an all-American slice of efficient production-house blandness, with McLean a mere package tourist revisiting old, already well-trodden ground. The ur-text for all this ghostly subversion of the modern bourgeois suburban American family is Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) – a film already remade as recently as 2015, not to mention closely reimagined in 2011 as James Wan’s Insidious (another American-set film from the Blumhouse stable directed by an Australian). Any pickings left on this corpse may represent McLean’s ticket into US filmmaking, but it is also dull, derivative horror, lacking everything that once made the Australian director distinctive – and for all its slick competence, The Darkness has been made strictly by numbers.
© Anton Bitel