Marco (Iain Glen) returns to the country of his birth -- for the first time since childhood -- to live in the Spanish countryside with his American-born family: his wife, Maria (Lena Olin); Regina (Anna Paquin), his teenage daughter; & Paul (Stephan Enquist), his younger son. Their idyllic surroundings mask a hidden menace centred on the family's mysterious, forty-year old house. At first, small annoyances -- like the electricity supply continually shorting -- are the only intimations of things to come; but after Marco suffers an epileptic attack for the first time in years and the usually lively Paul becomes withdrawn and afraid of the dark, disillusioned daughter Regina begins to suspect there is something altogether more macabre behind her family's troubles than faulty electrical wiring! Soon enough, Marco starts to become violent and unstable while Paul repeatedly wakes up covered in nasty bruises. Meanwhile, Maria refuses to acknowledge that anything is wrong. Regina turns to her Spanish boyfriend, Carlos (Fele Martinez) for help; and the discovery of a secret room under the stairs, ghostly apparitions on a photograph taken inside the house, and a revelation about the disappearance of six children -- all held prisoner in the house several decades previously -- lead to a chilling confrontation with darkness ... and destiny!
Fantastic Factory is a Barcelona-based production company founded by the successful Spanish producer, Julio Fernández (Los Sin Nombre, Tierra del Fuego) and American director/producer, Brian Yuzna (Reanimator, The Dentist). In the five years since its inception, the company has been responsible for six films -- many of them helmed by either Yuzna or his long-time collaborator, Stuart Gordon -- which have utilised the best Spanish and international acting & film-making talent to establish a highly professional standard, clearly marking the company's intention of producing commercially viable horror/fantasy movies. With this in mind, Spanish wunderkind, Jaume Balagueró was a natural choice to direct a Fantastic Factory flick: Julio Fernández already had an association with the director through having produced his debut, "Los Sin Nombre," which perfectly showcased Balagueró's dark but slick commercial style. The film established a niche which Fernández and other Spanish producers have been quick to exploit: many similar occult-themed horror thrillers have emerged from the country over the last five years. Of these, Balagueró's is still the most notable, but the director has proven he is no one hit wonder with his Fantastic Factory produced follow up: "Darkness."
Like all other Fantastic Factory films, "Darkness" is shot in English with a mostly English-speaking cast. Superficially at least, it appears to be a very Americanised, glossy product. The PG-13/15 Cert rating immediately sets alarm bells ringing since many horror fans have, rightly, come to despise the glut of bloodless, MPAA approved horror films that the studios started to foist upon us during the nineties. (NOTE: According to the IMDb, the film has, bizarrely, been given a R rating in the U.S., while in Spain and other European countries it has been rated as a either a PG,13 or 12.) Yet another warning sign comes with a look at the cast, which is headed by Anna Paquin -- here playing a typical, white-vested, babe. Every modern horror film, from the TCM remake to "Wrong Turn," appears to require an ass-kicking female heroine in a white vest to head the cast -- to the point where it has become something of a genre cliché! After a promising opening credit sequence, the sentimental music strikes up over a scene depicting a typical-looking nuclear family starting the day in their new home in the Spanish countryside. At this stage, it really looked like my initial impression from "Los Sin Nombre" -- that Balagueró would gladly sell his grannie's soul for Hollywood -- was correct, and that this film would be a achingly dull shadow of Balagueró's previous effort. But by the end I knew I was wrong -- "Darkness" is a stunning achievement. Balagueró has managed the difficult trick of creating a movie that remains true to his dark vision, while, simultaneously tailoring it enough so as not to alienate the average patron of Blockbuster! But behind its comfortable, glossy sheen of familiarity, there lurks a truly hardened heart of jet-black ice. Balagueró hasn't sold out after all.
This time out Balagueró has filmed an original story of his own, rather than an adaptation. The plot elements, at first seem more than a little over-familiar (another reason for my initial doubts) since the story could be seen as an amalgamation of "The Amityville Horror," "The Shining," "The Sixth Sense" and "Poltergeist;" hardly an enticing proposition, it has to be said! But this is one reason why the film benefits from multiple viewings: Balagueró often exploits our prior-knowledge of these haunted house movie influences to mislead us with regard to the direction the story is taking -- making the film an efficient and surprising mystery as well as an atmospheric chiller. Initially, we seem to be in for a Speilbergian tale of the nuclear family coming together to fight against indomitable supernatural forces. But, if anything, "Darkness" embodies the ultimate anti-Speilberg sensibility. The family in this film turn out to harbour many secrets and traumas kept hidden behind their happy facade of togetherness: even before the threats to their well-being begin proper, the facade is beginning to crumble.
Like "Los Sin Nombre" before it, "Darkness" offers rather an uncompromisingly bleak vision. In fact, Balagueró, with only two shorts and two features under his belt, already appears to be assembling a small arsenal of signature touches and recognisable leitmotifs: families are invariably nothing but a front for unspeakable evil -- evading detection because of the family unit's cultural respectability. This looks like shaping up to be as important a theme in Balagueró's films as the suspicion of mothers or mother-figures has been in Argento's, and an obsession with occult conspiracies (often allied to the family theme) is another constant.
The use of old standards on the soundtrack (and the appearance of equally old gramophone records in the films) is the director's most noticeable signature touch. Balagueró uses these innocent, sweet natured songs in much the same way as Dennis Potter used to in classic works such as "Pennies From Heaven ": as an ironic counterpoint to on-screen events which sometimes has the effect of making them sound rather sinister, adding considerably to the macabre atmosphere of the films. But it seems typical of contemporary Spanish horror (not just particularly Balagueró's work) that, even when its characters discover their feelings for each other, this often seems only to make their situation worse! I don't know whether it is because they are taking their cue from the success of Balagueró's debut, or if there is something in Spanish culture that explains it, but the modern Spanish horror film seems very paranoid and suspicious of the traditional family structure. There is also a preoccupation with children being terribly harmed and put under an extreme threat that adults are unable to prevent or -- sometimes -- unwittingly, aid.
Once again, Balagueró is blessed with a strong cast for this film: Natalie Portman was his original choice for the female lead, Regina -- but Anna Paquin does a good enough job as her replacement and even looks rather like her. The role is rather difficult since the character is the main focus of the film, while not necessarily always being all that sympathetic. Paquin starts out as a surly, rebellious teenager and gradually wins the audience over as madness begins to infect her family's household. Regina's brother, Paul, is played by newcomer, Stephen Enquist. Again: he has to play a difficult role of a possibly abused child, haunted by ghostly apparitions. Enquist gives a nice understated performance and avoids too many unnecessary histrionics. Strong support comes from Fele Martinez as Regina's supportive and sympathetic boyfriend and Italian actor, Giancarlo Giannini, delivers a pleasing turn as Marco's father. By far the best performances though, are given by Iain Glenn and Lena Olin as the parents; they really anchor the film -- adequately fulfilling their roles as possible suspects for wrongdoing in the mystery aspect of the story, while doing a superlative job of providing their respective characters with emotional depth. Lena Olin plays on her past track record of portraying villainous women in such films as "The Ninth Gate" and the tv spy series "Alias," possibly wrong-footing the audience in the process (I'm trying not to give too much away here!); Iain Glenn, meanwhile, gives an unnerving and ultimately tragic performance as the family's patriarch Marco: transforming from a gentle father into a raging paranoid, prone to sudden inexplicable bouts of extreme anger, with scary effectiveness.
With an enigmatic self-penned story and a wonderful cast at his disposal, all that remains is for Balagueró to bring his vision to the screen with the same stylish panache he mustered for "Los Sin Nombre." With the help of a great team, he succeeds admirably in the task -- providing a stylish master-class in how to sustain suspense and tension over the course of ninety minutes. Director of photography Xavi Giménez, who did such a fine job of creating a chilling, Fincher-esque atmosphere for "Los Sin Nombre," does an even better job here: bringing a rather more luminous, and sometimes quite colourful look to his second feature for Balagueró. The visual style is augmented by some subtle digital enhancement (as well as some more obvious effects such as the eclipse at the film's climax) which I wasn't even aware of until I saw one of the featurettes on the disc of extras. Whether it's digitally created ghostly shadows, some very convincing digital rainfall, or just a stained-glass effect on the windows of the family house, the work of the visual effects team adds a little extra pizzazz to the intense atmosphere of the film, while set designer Llorenç Miquel creates a house interior that is every bit as mysterious as the story requires.
Balagueró exploits the unusual design of the house in some thoughtful compositions which formally encapsulate many of the film's thematic concerns while also creating a sense of unease. Wide doorways between rooms separated by corridors, enable the director to frame images which look out of one room into another giving them a "scene-within-a-scene" effect. Several creepy sequences are created when our point-of-view is framed from within a darkened room full of silent spectral figures which gaze out (along with the viewer) onto another illuminated one where all the action in the scene is being played out. This device suggests the idea of evil (symbolised by darkness) constantly waiting to break out and dominate the world of light. Balagueró often enhances the impression with occasional deep, subterranean, rumblings -- like thunderclaps coming from underwater -- in the sound design, which sound like some monstrous, Lovecraftian leviathan is about to burst through from another dimension. Artistic use of sound design and editing are rapidly becoming Balagueró's directorial calling-cards; "Darkness" takes them both to another level. Some may find the slickness of his rapid-fire editing techniques (executed to perfection by editor, Luis de la Madrid) rather off-putting -- a reminder of the vogue-ish, MTV style of mainstream Hollywood flicks, which rely on loud noise and lots of busy camerawork to convince us that something worth watching is occurring when really it's not -- but, actually, Balagueró uses them to incorporate the theme of predetermined evil into the structure of the film: there are several gracefully edited short sequences which serve their function of providing sudden scares (lookout for the subway sequence in particular), but also flash a series of almost subliminal images across the screen which draw together past and future events in the house as though they are part of one organised tapestry. Near the end of the film at least three different sequences portraying events occurring simultaneously are skilfully woven together in a suspense-filled climax. The editing creates a sense of events unfolding like clockwork -- once again enforcing the feeling that they are all part of some hidden predetermined plan. On first viewing, some of this is a little overwhelming, and a wilful, typically European, neglect to explain every aspect of the plot means that the film occasionally feels confused on first viewing. But this only makes re-watching it a far more rewarding experience, as you begin to notice how almost everything slots together and has some kind of purpose in the overall plan. "Darkness" is most definitely a film that persistently draws the viewer back to it's overwhelming sense of mystery and dark fatalism.