One-time Oscar winner Anna Paquin has entered something pretty horrible. Not the spooky house in the remote Iberian countryside in which she and her fictional family–father Mark (Iain Glen), mother Maria (Lena Olin) and little brother Paul (Stephan Enquist)–take up residence in Jaume Balaguero’s “Darkness,” but the movie itself. “Darkness” is a Spanish production, shot in English (and actually dating from 2002), but it actually feels badly-dubbed and clumsily re-edited from some longer European original. It was presumably made on the assumption that if Japanese horror thrillers like “Ringu” and “Ju-on” can develop a cult following in this country , perhaps there’s a market for Spanish ones here too; maybe the success of Alejandro Amenabar’s far superior “The Others” encouraged the idea. But this picture is a stylish chaos, a jumble of fragments from such predecessors as “The Shining,” “Poltergeist” and “The Omen” tossed together to form a mixture less mystifying than incoherent, inviting more giggles than shudders. About the only positive thing that can be said about it is that since it’s already in a sort of English, we needn’t fear the imminent arrival of a Hollywood remake.
The “secret that should never come to light,” as the advertising blurb has it, involves that oddly-shaped house in Spain where the family relocates from America, apparently so that hubby Mark can reunite with his father Albert (Giancarlo Giannini), a local doctor who can treat his son for an illness that involves periodic fits; Mark’s wife (Olin) takes a position as a nurse in her father-in-law’s hospital. Older daughter Regina (Paquin) is a swimming wiz who quickly attracts the attention of local photographer Carlos (Fele Martinez); younger son Paul (Enquist) is a solitary tyke who enjoys drawing alone in his room. But there are immediate problems. Mark’s illness return with a vengeance; he becomes a rage-filled obsessive, maddened by the fact that the lights in their new abode occasionally flicker and go out, and tearing out walls to find hidden rooms, old photographs of wraithlike people and wind-up phonographs. He’s a bargain-basement knock-off King-Kubrick’s Jack Torrance. (There’s even a scene of him battering down a door that’s a direct steal from “The Shining,” and like Kubrick, Balaguero uses intertitles informing us of the passage of days to try to ratchet up the tension. The Martinez character also has much in common with Scatman Crothers’ Dick Halloran.) Meanwhile Paul is accosted in his room by ghostly figures connected with the disappearance of six children some forty years ago, the last time a total eclipse of the sun, now just about to recur, took place. Regina, unnerved by what’s happening and assisted by Fele, investigates the matter, eventually learning some secrets from old library books and the architect (Fermin Reixach) who built the house four decades earlier. Her queries lead to the unmasking of a villain (whose identity even the least astute viewer will have guessed long before) and a heroic effort not merely to save her family but to prevent what one takes to be the unleashing of some great evil force–presumably demonic–into the world. (The latter is the purest conjecture, since the last ten minutes or so of the movie are so garbled–involving lights-out moments, frantic chases, time shifts and–I think–shape-shifting, that intelligibility is at best approximate. What’s clear is that the big twist at the end is a complete dud.)
Balaguero gussies all this up with jagged editing, weirdly angled shots, odd lighting, abrupt out-of-frame entrances and slashing sounds to accompany them, but the result is more mess than mystery. The composition of individual moments is too arty by half (watch for the widescreen shots set in the hospital waiting room, with sunlight blazing throughout the windows in the background to put everybody in silhouette), and the picture relies entirely too much on endless shots of Paquin moving slowly down darkened hallways to generate suspense. This is the work of a director and cinematographer (Xavi Gimenez) trying to cover a lack of content with slick surface effects. The cast is mostly embarrassed by what’s required of them. Poor Paquin not only has to try to look concerned while sauntering around those many halls, but, even worse, must grimace and struggle in the inevitable scene when she’s captured and trussed up by the culprit who will explain the whole nefarious business. Glen overdoes the rabid bit as Regina’s unhinged dad, and Olin has trouble finding a handle on the character of Maria, whose angry dismissals of the idea that anything’s wrong seem irrational and overwrought; but Enquist gives young Danny–I mean Paul–a nice sense of vulnerability. Giannini is stuck in a thoroughly thankless part and looks tired and distracted, and you can see Martinez to much better effect as the Almodovar surrogate in the current “Bad Education.” (He’ll doubtless want to scratch this title from his resume before long.)
At the showing of “Darkness” this reviewer took in on opening day (the distributor understandably having declined to arrange pre-release press screenings), the projector bulb in the auditorium conked out during the previews prior to the feature; while the sound droned on, the screen went black. The problem was corrected before the picture began, but it would have been a blessing for all concerned, the filmmakers but especially the audience, if it hadn’t, because as it happens darkness certainly becomes this “Darkness.”