'Darkness' Fails

By Ann Hornaday
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 24, 2003

"Darkness Falls." Oy, how it falls.

A horror thriller that makes audiences jumpy not with genuine suspense but with big, in-your-face whomps of sound and visual shocks, it falls prey to predictability, preposterousness and a hectic pace. It falls way behind such obvious inspirations as "Scream" and "The Blair Witch Project." And it falls firmly under the categorical heading of B-minus movies -- not good enough to qualify as classic Gothic horror, not nearly fun enough to qualify as great B-movie camp.

Set in the fictional town of Darkness Falls, Maine (played in the film by various coastal locations in Australia), the film opens with a creepy expository prelude, during which a narrator explains that in the 19th century a woman was wrongly hanged for abducting two boys, and ever since has haunted the town, snatching children as soon as they lose their last baby tooth. One who escaped her talonlike clutches was Kyle Walsh, who as a 10-year-old came shockingly close to the keening banshee. Most of "Darkness Falls" transpires 20 years later, when the still-traumatized Kyle (Chaney Kley) returns to his home town to help his childhood best friend (Emma Caulfield) and her little brother (Lee Cormie) cope with the boy's fear of the dark.

Of course, Kyle knows that the fear is entirely justified -- he doesn't go anywhere without an arsenal of flashlights -- and as the body count rises in "Darkness Falls," the entire town comes to realize that he isn't the lunatic the folks took him for. Taking a page from the aforementioned "Blair Witch Project," director Jonathan Liebesman stages much of the action in the spooky woods on the outskirts of town, where a formless, moaning wraith swoops down from the trees to claw up her prey -- now apparently extended to adults. But where "Blair Witch" succeeded -- by keeping the witch tantalizingly out of view -- "Darkness" fails, as Liebesman chooses to show more and more of the monster, who with every sighting becomes that much less terrifying.

Liebesman's cast of virtually unknown actors do their best to retain their dignity even as they play second banana to the film's special effects, bombastic musical score and a creature designed by master makeup artist Stan Winston. Kley especially deserves sympathy for having to participate in such verbal pas de deux as: "The police are dead." "All of them?" "Pretty much."

Delivering its whammies at an average of every six minutes, "Darkness Falls" is nothing if not efficient. Filmgoers addicted to the peculiar adrenaline rush of being clonked over the head with loud, jarring noises and furiously edited images may find it's just the ticket in times that, presumably, just aren't scary enough. But viewers are more likely to emerge from "Darkness Falls" muttering the same thing as one of the story's gruesomely dispatched characters: "All this over a [expletive] tooth."

Darkness Falls (85 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for disturbing images and vulgar language.

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