A family beset by autism, bulimia, alcoholism and extramarital canoodling squares off against the world-ending prophecies of Anasazi canyon-dwellers in “The Darkness,” a kitchen-sink horror movie so over-the-top that even the actual kitchen faucet runs mysteriously. At some point in the production process, co-writer/director Greg McLean must have believed he was making John Cassavetes’ “Poltergeist,” but this odd fusion of psychodrama and supernatural hokum gets away from him. Though better cast and considerably more ambitious than a typical PG-13 frightfest, “The Darkness” succumbs to the bloodless shocks and assaultive sound effects that plague its generic peers. The film may siphon a few million indiscriminate dollars on opening weekend, but will recede into the shadows quickly thereafter.
Literally and metaphorically, “The Darkness” is half a world away from the barebones ferocity of “Wolf Creek,” McLean’s debut feature from a decade ago, a tense and grisly thriller set in the Australian Outback. Though he opens in the similarly barren, sun-baked terrain of the Grand Canyon, most of the action takes place in suburban Los Angeles, where a family is tormented from within and without. In a scenario as corny as watching the Brady Bunch in Hawaii, the Taylor family comes back from vacation with a cursed souvenir one of the kids found in a cave, only here it’s a collection of magic rocks instead of a tiki necklace.
When strange occurrences start happening around the house, Peter (Kevin Bacon) and Bronny (Radha Mitchell) attribute most of the problems to their autistic son Mikey (David Mazouz), whose development has always presented its share of challenges. They learn to take Mikey’s new imaginary friend in stride and have rationalizations at the ready for the soot-stained handprints and terrible smells, and the neighbor dog that won’t stop barking. Between Peter’s wandering eye, Bronny’s drinking problem and a teenage daughter (Lucy Fry) with an eating disorder, the Taylors have enough problems without centuries-old spirit demons skittering behind the walls.
Right around the time Mikey lights a section of his bedroom wall on fire, Peter and Bronny finally acknowledge a supernatural presence, but their efforts to fight it are undermined by marital discord. “The Darkness” isn’t the first horror film to exploit the vulnerabilities within a family — Martin Scorsese’s remake of “Cape Fear,” for example, made that one crucial change to the original — but it adds a layer of intrigue beyond the things that go bump in the night. Bacon and Mitchell have more to do than react to greenscreens, and their performances suggest a difficult history beyond the page.
The trouble with “The Darkness” is that McLean keeps piling it on, both on the domestic and paranormal front. An entire subplot is devoted to Peter’s lascivious boss (Peter Reiser) hiring a young college grad just to tempt him. His daughter’s bulimia is a crisis that comes and goes like Sunday dinner. Worst of all, McLean turns Mikey’s autism into an alien quality, as if he’s closer in spirit to the shadow beasts haunting his family than a member of the human race. He isn’t the usual creepy kid; his “otherness” is connected to ugly stereotypes of spectrum disorder.
The see-what-sticks quality of the melodrama applies doubly to the mythology, which teems over with so much nonsense that it takes an Internet video on Anasazi lore, multiple browser searches and a pair of ghostbusters to explain it all. There are portents of extinct societies, a special rock configuration, spirit animals and a portal to another world. Mikey’s imaginary friend even requests a pair of helium balloons from the grocery store, as prophecy apparently dictates. It’s all outrageously silly, hammered home by the ear-blasting shrieks and stingers on the soundtrack. “The Darkness” may fail, but to McLean’s credit, it’s not for lack of trying.