Jaume Balaguero's DARKNESS
I always have to walk a fine line between explaining what I find most interesting about a movie and giving away too many secrets. I want to be enthusiastic about a movie I think is one of the best I've ever seen, but on the other hand, I want viewers to be able to experience it the same way I did: to have it unfold its mysteries on its own terms, to an audience that doesn't know quite what to expect.

There are two things I have to consider, though: the first is that this shot-in-English Spanish movie has not yet been released in the United States, although it's been over a year since it was made. I'm not even sure of its availability on video anywhere, in any format, as of this writing. So I'm enthusing about a movie that can't be seen by most of my audience. Naturally, I want to give people a hint of what's in store for them, when the movie eventually makes its way to the US. I also want to whet people's interest so that they'll go looking for it when it does arrive... and maybe even help create a demand for it in the first place. the second point is that for the entire first act of the film, director Jaume Balagueró tries desperately to convince the audience that he's making a conventional haunted-house horror film. It's an illusion, but the illusion succeeds a little too well... I'm very anxious to warn potential viewers not to be misled by almost the entire first half of the film. Balagueró is setting up the expectations of your average horror film, even going so far as to do certain things rather... umm... not badly, perhaps, but unexceptionally... so that he can upset everything, whisk the entire planet out from under your feet, as the movie builds to the shocking conclusion.

But simply by saying this, I may have given too much away. I will try not to reveal too many things in the review that follows, but if you want to see the film without any preconceptions, you'd better just accept my warmest recommendations for the film and stop reading now.

Still here? All right; you asked for it.

Let's face it: too many horror movies reduce the War between Good and Evil to the Mild Struggle between Nice and Stupid. Think of all the times we've seen "Evil" defeated by the Power of Good, or Innocence, or Prayer, or Motherhood... per se; or by simply forgetting to keep its crypt locked during the daytime! This gets irritating after a while, mostly because it makes the Bad Guys, always the most interesting characters in a horror movie, seem like a bunch of idiots. And, of course, it goes against what we know about real Evil, and the way it achieves its ends.

As I write this, the news is being reported that a suicide bomber in Iraq has blown up the office of the Baghdad Red Crescent. Every day we get reports of people who are willing to die committing vile acts like this -- blowing up a neutral aid organization, sponsored by the killers' co-religionists, simply because it's vulnerable. Yes, innocence and love and good intentions are powerful weapons in the fight... but they are weapons that are most powerful in the hands of the Evildoers. Genuine monsters count on good people to assume the best; to play by the rules; to be fair. They themselves will do none of these things, thus ensuring that they will not only take the well-intentioned people by surprise, but also that they will leave many of us shocked and demoralized. And they know that we don't dare fight them on their terms. It's enough to make you turn away in disgust from all the vampires who forgot about the sunrise, or werewolves who wouldn't attack the women they loved, or demons who were banished from the body of a possessed woman by the power of Love alone. Such stories don't hold up to scrutiny, no matter how good they may make us feel.

But there are movies that take the idea of evil seriously. There are a handful of movies that understand that ghosts or demons or witches may be every bit as intelligent -- or at least as crafty -- as living people, and every bit as ruthless. There aren't many such movies, or books, or other works; otherwise it might be impossible ever to sleep again. But one of the best is Jaume Balagueró's Darkness, a film that is brutally honest in its depiction of intelligent evil.

When you mention Spanish horror to many genre fans, their minds immediately go to the colorful, wildly uneven films of the 70's. Names like León Klimovsky, Carlos Aured or Paul Naschy come to mind, along with memories of kitschy color schemes, over-the-top monster action and lots more vaguely disreputable fun. Well... Spanish horror has come of age since then, to the point where directors like Alejandro Amenábar and Balagueró are producing some of the finest films the genre has ever seen.

Balagueró, for instance, was the first director to bring a novel by Ramsey Campbell to the screen. It's hard to believe until you see the statistic on paper, but it's true: a writer of Campbell's stature has had no feature film based on his work until the start of the 21st century... and it took a dedicated Spanish director to make it happen. Of course, the main reason that Campbell's work has not been adapted for film is that so much of it deals with subjective horror. Campbell's fiction puts you behind the eyes of madmen and killers and lost souls and their victims, to the point where he can disturb you like no other writer can. This kind of highly personal horror doesn't lend itself to cinematics the way the work of other writers does (though, when you stop to think about it, even an overfilmed writer like Stephen King has never really had the strongest points of his writing adapted adequately for the screen... in my opinion, even the small handful of successful films based on King's novels usually fail to capture the character of the books they're based on). But then, along came a film maker -- not even a native English speaker, at that -- whose creative vision ran along similar lines to Campbell's, who realized how one of the most distinctive literary voices in all of horror fiction could be translated into cinema faithfully and respectfully... and thus Los Sin Nombre/The Nameless was made, to audience and critical acclaim everywhere it played.

Mind you, this movie, too, has yet to show up in the United States.

In the meantime, another Spanish director has adapted one of Campbell's books for the screen: Paco Plaza's Segundo Nombre/Second Name is another terrifying vision, in which everything we rely on for safety and comfort (family, religion, law...) turns out to be a front for hidden corruption. Strong paranoid stuff, in other words... and a far cry from the almost quaint horrors of Spanish cinema in the 70's.

Oh, and by the way, we're still waiting on Second Name.

Balagueró's Darkness is not based on Campbell, but it shares the English writer's skill at building a sense of doom. But as I've mentioned earlier, it starts deceptively slowly, and this long, somewhat conventional setup may cause some viewers to give up before the film has a chance to really shine. There's another aspect of the film that may cause some confused expectations among American genre fans: all along the way there are explicit references to other classic "bad house" films, in particular The Shining, Inferno and House by the Cemetery, but these references are completely dead-pan, devoid of any of the grating irony that mars so many recent American films. And Darkness, while acknowledging these classic "bad house" movies, doesn't follow their examples at all.

The heroine of the picture is Regina, a 16-year-old girl, who has moved back to Spain from America with her family. Regina's father had undergone a traumatic experience as a child -- he had been abducted as a child along with a number of other local children, and he was the only one to have escaped and survived. The others had been butchered. Somehow, the event may have had some connection to the house where the family now lives, which has been given to them by Regina's grandfather. After moving back to the area, Regina's father begins to experience strange breakdowns, while her little brother seems to be having paranormal experiences... ones that leave him drastically cut and bruised.

It seems as though the house is visited by the ghosts of the dead children from so many years ago. However, if they're ghosts, they're distressingly corporeal ghosts: they leave the traces of their nails and fists and teeth all over Regina's little brother. When we see them, half-visible in shadow, they lack the sinister "ghostly" look we'd expect... in fact, they look like normal children in shadow. There's a reason for this, and it's not an inability on the part of the director to create effective atmosphere. It gradually turns out that this is not a "haunted house" story at all, and that the child-ghosts are barely even peripheral to the true goings-on. There are far more dangerous and frightening things than the children, both among the living and the dead.

Regina, our heroine, is innocent, and good-hearted, and loving, and strong. This would seem to make her the ideal horror movie heroine. In fact, it makes her the ideal pawn for forces she is ill-equipped to fight. Forget all the comforting horror clichés, even though the movie is going to try hard to get you to expect them. Regina will get no mercy from this film. What is at stake is much more than her life, or the lives of her family. It's more, even, than the typical quest of paranormal creatures for life after death. It's about nothing less than the end of the world and the triumph of pure evil, and evil is well-prepared for the event.

There isn't much more I dare to say without giving everything away. Maybe I should add one more little spoiler.

When was the last time you were actually scared by the appearance of a movie monster?

I'm not counting childhood experiences... heaven knows I was permanently creeped out as a kid by some obvious zipper-backed monster suits. No, what I'm getting at is this: there was a time when people were genuinely shocked and frightened by Jack Pierce's classic makeup for Boris Karloff in the originl Frankenstein. Years later, no one would eat lunch with Christopher Lee in his makeup during the shooting of Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein. These days, we take both costumes in stride. In fact, we've seen all sorts of previously unimagineable horrors on film, thanks to better makeup effects and, of course, computer-generated images. These days we're usually amused by the grotesque things we see on the screen, and certainly not horrified by them.

One of the movies that did seriously frighten audiences of recent years was The Blair Witch Project, and that movie was both praised and criticized for not showing any monsters. Some crticis on both sides of the argument pointed out: what would they have shown if they did give us a monster? How frightening could a ghost-witch be? It would either be some old woman in makeup, or it would be a CGI bogey, and either way it would be an anticlimax. Right?

As it happens, there are ghost witches in Darkness. They resemble old women: nothing more. And they are the most terrifying creatures I have ever seen on film. They nearly scared me out of my skin the first time they come on screen, and that's in a photograph. The photo itself plays a large part in the scariness to come, but when we get a live glimpse of the old ones... it gives me chills even to think of them. And that's only their appearance. When I think of what they do... the climax of the film certainly lives up to the title, literally as well as metaphorically, and even if we don't see what's waiting for us, we know what's there. It's even worse when we strain our eyes, and still can't see what we expect.

But perhaps I've said too much. Let me just stress that Darkness is intelligent, canny, disturbing, and very frightening. The writing is good, the acting is good, the set design and cinematography are top-flight, and the lighting (more especially the lack of it) is exceptional. If you have the opportunity to see it, see it. And in the meantime, I hope a wider US audience is able to descend into Darkness soon.

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