Early summer’s kind of a weird time of the year to release a goofy, low-rent horror. The Darkness might’ve been more at home among the year’s earlier horror cheapies like The Boy or The Forest or maybe held off until whatever lackluster PG-13 terrors await us this Halloween season. Instead, it arrived now, begging to be drowned among blockbuster releases like Captain America: Civil War & X-Men: Apocalypse. Even I, connoisseur of bland horror cheapness, almost passed over the film based on its not so memorable ad campaign. It was the IMDb plot synopsis that drew me back in: “A family returns from a Grand Canyon vacation, haunted by an ancient supernatural entity they unknowingly awakened and engages them in a fight for their survival.” Now that sounds silly enough to work. Obviously, I would rather would rather see a Mt. Rushmore ghost story, but a Grand Canyon one is enough to raise my eyebrow & get my ass to a theater.
Kevin Baton is the paterfamilias of a dysfunctional family vacationing at The Grand Canyon. His autistic son angers ancient spirits by stealing mystic pebbles from a forbidden cave. Some dumb teen we thankfully never see helpfully explains, “There’s all kinds of creepy old shit in this place.” He’s not wrong. The caves & curves of The Grand Canyon have an ancient, old world magnetism to them that can really chill you in their enormity. That’s why, I’m assuming, The Darkness spends as little time there as possible & scuttles the family back to their standard issue suburban home as soon as it gets the chance. You wouldn’t want the majestic beauty & ancient spookiness of a natural phenomenon getting in the way of a familial melodrama after all, especially not in a cheap horror flick. No way. The Darkness is mostly of a portrait of a family unraveling where each member is dutifully assigned a personal struggle to overcome (adultery, alcoholism, autism, an eating disorder) and evil pebbles that open dimensional gateways to the Native American version of the Apocalypse are reduced to manifestations of bad karma due to a business dad’s selfishness in choosing work over family. Oh yeah, and Paul Reiser stops by, which I guess is scary in its own way too.
The Darkness is never truly scary, but it can occasionally be amusing in its ineptitude. I especially found it humorous when the film claims that autism puts children in a more spiritually receptive state, which is why its spooky-autistic tyke who steals the Apocalypse stones befriends a ghost he names Jenny & opens a portal to a ghost dimension on his bedroom wall (a plot detail that’s very reminiscent of last year’s Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension). If turning a mental disorder into a source of cheap horror isn’t goofily offensive/insensitive enough for you, the film is just as willing as any 80s misfire you can think of to other Native American societies as some kind of spooky mystics and only portray them performing spooky-mystic rituals involving chants & feathers. There’s also more standard-issue cliches the film tosses out (I assume) for a laugh: crows as foreshadowing, husbands ignoring their wives’ claims of hauntings, spooky Google (em, “E-web”) search results, etc.
Had The Darkness stayed in the desert it might’ve borrowed some of the same location-specific horror that colored properties like Pitch Black, The Descent, and 127 Hours in a memorable way. Had it portrayed evil spirits a little more menacing than a dude wearing fake wolf hide to Burning Man it might’ve convincingly threatened an imminent Apocalypse. Had it not reduced autism or Native American rituals into cheap gimmicks & novelties I might not have laughed in its face. As is, it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill PG-13 horror with just enough goofy misfires to make the experience enjoyably corny & mildly offensive, as if the Lifetime Channel had started producing late night creature features (which is a racket Lifetime totally should break into).