PG-13 | 92 min | Greg McLean | (USA) | 2016
Review: “The Darkness” sheds light on living with an autistic child…and ways to borrow heavily from Poltergeist (1982).
Synopsis: A family travels to the Grand Canyon and brings home some uninvited and unwelcome visitors.
Grade: B- / C+
I especially love Radha Mitchell (Bronny Taylor) and David Mazouz (Michael Taylor) in this film. Their acting is superb and skillfully builds the narrative. Mitchell lends an extraordinary believability to her role as neglected spouse and over-burdened mother.[i] I am going to tell you now that the reason that this film grade was B- / C+ was largely thanks to the work of these two and the underlying narrative about living with an autism spectrum child.[ii]
Since we all know I love a film with some social commentary The Darkness satisfies my cravings via the family drama and life with an autistic son. On several occasions the film suggests that the supernatural beings that followed the Taylor family home might be causing Michael to act out in negative ways (start fires, harm the cat, general lack of safety awareness). To the family untouched by autism, it is easy to believe that evil forces guide Michael’s hand. However, now that the rates of autism diagnosis in America are around 1 in 68 children (with boys being five times more likely), I can say with confidence that a good portion of Americans understand the challenges (and triumphs) of a boy like Michael. The film adequately plays out both the wondrous and difficult things that arise in a family with an autistic child including some of these which lend nicely to a horror narrative: communication breakdown, marital problems, not paying as much attention to the needs of the other children, and being afraid of your child. All of these occur in The Darkness and result in a perfect storm by which evil seeps into the very foundation of the family.
The evil in the film is able to feed off of the negativity within the family. And this family, like most, has its trouble. Peter (Kevin Bacon) is a philandering absentee husband / father and Bronny is a recovering alcoholic. Throughout the film they question if it was their indiscretions and poor parenting that caused the bad karma that resulted in Michael’s diagnosis. Like any parent in crisis, they wonder whether it’s their fault that their children are the way they are. If they had only watched their son more carefully, would he have opened the floodgates so demons could run amok? If they were better people would their son have been born autistic? (You and I know this is irrational, but I am sure it crosses people’s minds at times.) Nonetheless, this familial chaos makes the Taylors rich with the stuff needed for a decent horror film.
What doesn’t work:
The whole Native American thing just seems disjointed and peculiar. It doesn’t add anything new or significant to the narrative other than plot points that really mirror those in Poltergeist (1982). This film could just have easily been one of a ghost or a poltergeist rather than Anasazi demons. The background story seemed so interchangeable and frivolous after building up such rich character stories with the Taylors themselves. And when I say this film borrows from Poltergeist I am being nice.
Sadly, at times it seems that Michael’s diagnosis was added haphazardly after coming across unsupported articles that make sweeping generalizations about autism and the paranormal.[iii] I found his autism to be generally beneficial to the narrative, but sometimes it seemed just a point of cause and effect. Only someone like Michael could open the door for the demons. Only someone like Michael could create the added tension between characters. Nonetheless, the addition of Michael and his well-portrayed ASD outweighed my minor gripes.
The Nuts and Bolts:
I enjoyed this film. It is rated PG-13 so you won’t get some of the really intense horror that many of us have longed for over the past few years. I liked the acting, liked the family back story, and it made me think a little. The plot had some slow spots, the bad guys aren’t that scary, and the ending was pretty run of the mill. Would I see it again? Probably not unless I was at a friend’s house where it was already on the TV. But, I would not hesitate to tell a friend to ignore the crabby movie reviews and go see it in the theater.
[i] This is an excellent interview with Radha which shows some insight into her role: http://acedmagazine.com/interview-radha-mitchell-darkness/
[ii] For a better understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder check this out: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/autism-spectrum-disorders-asd/index.shtml
[iii] This article appeared in the internet search that Kevin Bacon does in The Darkness: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/disturbed/201310/autistic-kids-are-magnets-ghosts Sadly, there are no studies to support this and there are no scholarly citations.