Even though its conspicuous lack of full-bore gore may disappoint many genre fans, "Darkness Falls" could click with ticket buyers who prefer some restraint in their scary stories. It's an instantly disposable and shamelessly derivative piece of work, but first-time feature helmer Jonathan Liebesman shows a savvy flair for atmospheric visuals.

Even though its conspicuous lack of full-bore gore may disappoint many genre fans, “Darkness Falls” could click with ticket buyers who prefer some restraint in their scary stories. It’s an instantly disposable and shamelessly derivative piece of work — call it petit guignol, and you won’t be far off the mark — but first-time feature helmer Jonathan Liebesman shows a savvy flair for atmospheric visuals. Unrestrictive PG-13 rating should allow for beaucoup teen date biz during opening weekend. Expect even more impressive biz once pic starts to haunt vidstore shelves.

Artfully minimalist intro sets spooky mood with clever commingling of narration, flames and shadow–streaked photos. More than 150 years ago in the New England town of Darkness Falls, a kindly old woman named Matilda Dixon offered gold coins to children who would give her their baby teeth. Naturally, her beneficence earned her the nickname of “Tooth Fairy.” After a terrible conflagration in her home, however, Matilda became a recluse, hiding her fire-scarred face behind a white porcelain mask. And when two local children vanished one evening, the unfortunate widow was wrongly blamed for their disappearance and lynched by an angry mob. With her dying breath, she left a curse on Darkness Falls.

Liebesman smoothly segues from exposition to suspenseful prologue, as young Kyle Walsh (Joshua Anderson) learns the hard way that local legends about a murderous Tooth Fairy are all too true. The terrified youngster watches helplessly as Matilda, swooping down from the darkness like a mammoth bird of prey, pounces upon his mother. Unfortunately, the cops don’t believe in ghosts — despite a long history of unsolved child murders in the area — so Kyle is blamed for his mom’s demise.

Twelve years later, pic intros grownup Kyle (Chaney Kley) as a skittish paranoid who barely keeps himself together with strong medication. Mindful that Matilda will never venture out except in darkness, and can in fact be repelled with any kind of illumination, he keeps his Las Vegas apartment stocked with dozens of flashlights, hundreds of batteries and scores of emergency backup lamps. (Pic does nothing with provocative idea that the neon-lit, 24/7 razzle-dazzle of Vegas would be a godsend for someone afraid of the dark.)

But Kyle must return to the scene of the crime when Caitlin (Emma Caulfield), his childhood sweetheart, tells him that Michael (Lee Cormie), her 9-year-old brother, is having the same sort of nightmares Kyle used to have: Specifically, nightmares about a wraith-like figure in a white mask that hovers over his bed. Not surprisingly, Michael is afraid of the dark. Trouble is, the doctors treating him fail to realize his fears are justified.

Working from a script by James Vanderbilt, Joe Harris and producer John Fasano, Liebesman does a reasonably efficient job of maintaining a brisk pace — the movie is scarcely 75 minutes long, plus 10 minutes of extended credits — while hitting all the predictable plot points and scoring a few cheap scares. Few cliches are left unturned — chase sequences through dark corridors of an oddly underpopulated hospital appear to be lifted from “Halloween II” and dozens of similar pics — and, yes, quite a few prove effective in this context.

Overall, though, “Darkness Falls” is creepiest when it relies on the power of suggestion to thrill and chill. Liebesman wisely refrains from giving aud a clear view of the Tooth Fairy until the very end, preferring to offer only fleeting glimpses of the vengeful phantasm as it stalks anyone who makes the mistake of looking at it. Best scene is a frantic police station shootout involving an initially incredulous deputy (Sullivan Stapleton) who becomes a believer in wide-awake nightmares.

In his first major film role, Kley scores strong impact with sympathetic portrayal of profoundly spooked-out Kyle, while moppet thesp Cormie is credibly terrified. Pay close attention to Cormie and a few other supporting players, however, and you’ll note tell-tale vocal clues that pic was shot in Australia — with largely Aussie cast — and not in New England.

Cinematographer Dan Laustsen and production designer George Liddle greatly enhance the overall mood of dread. Finale in long-abandoned lighthouse is somewhat muddled by hysterical quick-cutting, but climactic f/x extravaganza — including an aptly grisly Tooth Fairy designed and created by Stan Winston Studio — is mildly impressive. Ironic coda represents admirable attempt to tweak genre conventions, but falls flat.

Darkness Falls

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures and Revolution Studios presentation of a Distant Corners/Blue Star Pictures production. Produced by John Hegeman, John Fasano, William Sherak, Jason Shuman. Executive producers, Derek Dauchy, Lou Arkoff. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman. Screenplay, John Fasano, James Vanderbilt, Joe Harris, from a story by Harris.

Crew

Camera (DeLuxe color), Dan Laustsen; editors, Steve Mirkovich, Tim Alverson; music, Brian Tyler; production designer, George Liddle; art director, Tom Nursey; costume designer, Anna Borghesi; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), John Schiefelbein; creature designed and created by Stan Winston Studio; assistant director, Jamie Crooks; casting, Lynne Ruthven, Maura Fay & Associates. Reviewed at Edwards Grand Palace, Houston, Jan. 21. 2003. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 85 MIN.

With

Kyle Walsh - Chaney Kley Caitlin - Emma Caulfield Michael - Lee Cormie Larry - Grant Piro Matt - Sullivan Stapleton Dr. Murphy - Steve Mouzakis Dr. Travis - Peter Curtin Nurse Lauren - Kestie Morassi Nurse Alex - Jenny Lovell Captain Henry - Peter Stanton Ray - Angus Sampson Young Kyle - Joshua Anderson Young Caitlin - Emily Browning Kyle's Mom - Rebecca McCauley

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