Movie Information

Genre: Horror
Director: Jaume Balaguero
Starring: Lena Olin, Anna Paquin, Iain Glen, Giancarlo Giannini, Fele Martinez, Stephan Enquist
Rated: PG-13

People trying to sell me on this movie say that director Jaume Balaguero is the man who revitalized the Spanish horror-film industry. I must confess that I didn’t realize Spain had such an industry, much less that it needed revitalizing.

But if this clunky rip-off of The Shining — with a few dashes of The Others thrown in — was capable of revitalizing it, Spanish horror must have been in a bad way. The best this film could hope to do is put the genre on life-support.

I’ll concede that Darkness was cut down to get a PG-13 rating (gotta get every nickel out of that teenage-boy fanbase), so we’re not seeing quite the film that Balaguero made. And I’ll admit that goosing the gore quotient certainly would have helped the movie, though I can’t imagine that that alone could appreciably improve it. The fact that the film has sat on the shelf for two years before its U.S. release hasn’t helped either. Releasing it at all was the big mistake.

This is direct-to-video dreck if ever it existed. I suppose that the allure of an English-language horror film with a partially recognizable cast caused visions of a success like that achieved by Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others. Perhaps no one at Dimension Films actually looked at the thing before releasing it, but that doesn’t jive with the cost-conscious decision to release it without DTS or SDDS soundtracks (meaning that the soundtrack will suffer in any but a Dolby Digital theater).

More likely, the idea in releasing this film now was to turn a quick buck with viewers not wishing to spend Christmas with the Kranks, the Fockers, the Baudelaire orphans, the Phantom, Steve Zissou, Fat Albert, Alfred Kinsey or Howard Hughes. And judging by the film’s Christmas-weekend box-office, they seem to have found quite a few folks in that group.

Well, it’s certainly funnier than Kranks or Fat Albert, but it’s also much less frightening.

The pity is that the film’s story isn’t bad, at least so long as you don’t question why anyone would want to pull off the demonic hooey at the center of it all. But the execution is bad and the development is worse. This is one of those horror flicks that’s determined to show how serious it is by having almost nothing happen for about half its length.

What little does happen falls under the heading of “movies you can write while you watch.” For example, an arbitrary mention of a toy carousel assures you that as soon as the lights are off, the damned thing’s going to kick into action. And the most rational and comforting character in the film is, of course, going to turn out to be the source of the evil. This aspect of the film is mildly entertaining, but as an accomplishment for the viewer, it’s about on par with guessing that the 4-year-old with red stuff on his face has been at the strawberry jam.

What this leaves is a story about an American family that moves into a creepy old house in Spain where strange events ensue. Despite the fact that the move reunites Dad (Iain Glen, Resident Evil: Apocalypse) with his estranged father (Giancarlo Giannini), it appears that Mom (Lena Olin) is the reason they’ve moved there, since she’s the only one with a job. (What job is never made clear, but it keeps her out of the house a lot.)

This leaves Dad — who, it turns out, is prone to some kind of fits, various forms of dementia and possibly a spot of child abuse — with a lot of time on his hands to get taken over by the house and listen to the “whispering larvae” in its walls. Whispering larvae? (I was hoping for a theme song here with lyrics like, “whispering larvae don’t tell the trees, the trees don’t need to know.” Never mind.)

The son’s (newcomer Stephen Enquist) colored pencils keep getting sucked under the bed by a mysterious but apparently artistically inclined force. Dad finds a secret room under the stairs with a gramophone and a photo of three sunglasses-festooned, grim-faced old women who look like they’re straight out of the “Book of the Dead” in The Others. Sonny seems to be getting bruised and scratched by someone … or something. Daughter (Anna Paquin) thinks Dad has gone ’round the bend and is abusing her brother. Mom lives in a state of workaholic denial. Granddad tells everyone there’s nothing wrong and gives Dad some more medication. Six children who were victims of a ritual killing 40 years earlier group themselves picturesquely in the backgrounds to oversee events, while a shadowy figure (or perhaps a stray prop-man who has wandered into frame) flits across the screen to a blast of loud music every so often.

By the time all this leads to an explanation, you realize none of it makes any sense. Just for starters, why would there be these souvenirs — the gramophone, the photo, various bits of junk — of previous residents in a house where no one has ever lived? I suppose the whispering larvae put them there, but since we never see these chatty grubs, their tastes in music and art are never made clear.

Savvy horror fans might get some amusement identifying the various ripped-off sources; in addition to those mentioned previously, Dario Argento’s Inferno and Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm are the most respectable, while Darkness Falls, Fear Dot Com and They are the least. But really, there are better ways to waste your time. Rated PG-13 for disturbing images, intense terror sequences, thematic elements and language.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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