Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on December 24, 2004, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.
The good news that Dimension has finally pulled Jaume Balagueró’s Darkness off the shelf where it’s been lingering for two years is tempered by the bad news that it has been tossed into the competitive Christmas marketplace with no critics’ screenings, but with trims to get it a PG-13. Apropos of both, I should point out that I’m reviewing the film from the uncut Spanish DVD, with the assumption that the only changes are the deletion of a couple of quick gore shots and a handful of F-bombs to obtain the less restrictive rating.
Darkness is Balagueró’s follow-up to the remarkable The Nameless (which Dimension also controls in the U.S.; hey, guys, could you at least put that one out on video sometime?). In just two films, he has proven himself one of his country’s foremost practitioners of eerie supernatural filmmaking, though working in a language not his own has tempered some of the effectiveness of his second feature. The English-language dialogue in the script he wrote with Fernando de Felipe is occasionally awkward, the performances of the cast are uneven and the exposition ultimately becomes muddled (which probably would have been a problem in Spanish too). Yet Balagueró overcomes these flaws with an alternately edgy and dread-soaked approach that results in a genuinely frightening experience.
The story setup is one seen in many U.S./overseas co-productions in the genre: a group of Americans who have either moved or traveled to a foreign country. In this case, it’s a family that includes parents Mark (Iain Glen) and Maria (Lena Olin), his father Albert (Giancarlo Giannini), their teenaged daughter Regina (Anna Paquin) and young son Paul (Stephan Enquist). As the movie opens, it has been three weeks since they moved into their new home in the Spanish countryside, and while the place is certainly dripping with atmosphere, there’s nothing overtly scary about it. Rather, Balagueró initially evokes little Paul’s more realistic fears, which have to do with suspicions of strife between his parents and a recurring illness plaguing Mark. As time goes on, however, more overtly supernatural manifestations begin scaring both Paul and Regina, and while these tricks are familiar from other occult dramas, Balagueró wrings honest chills out of them. No small credit must also go to the cinematography of Xavi (The Machinist) Giménez, who is quickly becoming as important a figure on the Spanish horror scene as any director, and whose work here is by turns lush and stark.
The dynamics among the various family members are plausibly played out, even if specific scenes between them don’t always ring true. Balagueró maintained a tight and gripping focus on a sole heroine in The Nameless; widening the ensemble results in the tension being spread thinner in Darkness’ midsection. This is particularly true when Regina has to spend the requisite amount of time (joined by her local boyfriend, played by young Spanish genre veteran Fele Martínez) trying to piece together the mystery of her new home’s background, complete with a visit to the apartment of a strange old man who knows its secrets. Yet throughout the movie, Balagueró has a number of shivery surprises up his sleeve, and he manages to pull a few interesting reversals on what appear to be genre clichés. You may groan when a villain spends a few scenes explaining his plot to a potential victim instead of just dispatching that person, but he ultimately proves to have a good reason for not killing his prisoner off.
That explanation doesn’t entirely make sense, and seems a bit more complicated than perhaps it needed to be. It’s once he’s gotten past the exposition that Balagueró really gets cooking, and the final 10-15 minutes are full of genuine shivers. The movie’s title isn’t just a random scary moniker; the plot ultimately proves to actually hinge on darkness, and Balagueró and Gimenez’s use of light and the lack thereof is expert throughout. One can only assume that the director’s handling of English-speaking stars will have become more confident in his next feature, the recently wrapped Fragile (starring Calista Flockhart and Richard Roxburgh)—but the results will no doubt be chilling either way.