Since leaving full time television production, famed small screen maverick Stephen J. Cannell – responsible for seminal shows such as The Rockford Files, The A-Team and Wiseguy - has carved out a fairly interesting niche in the genre marketplace. Via his independent film company, he has given birth (for better or worse) to such direct to DVD diversions as The Garden (Lance Henriksen as a rural Satan) It Waits (pulchritudinous park ranger vs. flying demon) and The Tooth Fairy (child killing witch with a penchant for juvenile incisors). One of the filmmakers he's fostered is Steven R. Monroe, a onetime cameraman who decided to step into the roll of director. Along with the previously mentioned It Waits, Monroe has made the nominal House of 9, the dreary Dual and the just completed Sasquatch Mountain. Somewhere in between, he found time to make Left in Darkness. Oddly enough, this amiable afterlife allegory has a lot going for it. Sadly, it's not enough to render the effort completely successful.
Celia is turning 21, and like every birthday before, it's a hard circumstance to face. See, it is not just the anniversary of her birth, but the anniversary of her mother's death as well. Raised by her now-deceased grandfather, Celia has always felt alone, especially on this day. Her only solace was an imaginary friend named Donovan who swore he would always protect her. When a trip to a college frat party turns dicey, then deadly, Celia wakes up in a kind of limbo. There, she meets Donovan again, and he informs her that, in two hours, her "sanctuary light" will be gone, and the soul eaters lurking just outside her paranormal plane will rip her to shreds. She must discover the secrets of this surreal domain, a place between life and death, or face eternal damnation and destruction. Celia quickly learns that not everything in this unreal world is not as it seems. Figures once friendly and familiar are now out to destroy her, while the one unseen friend who's supposedly protected her for years may also be trying to deceive her. Either way, if she doesn't figure out her fate in less than two hours, Celia is destined to be Left in Darkness for all eternity.
Here's a minor warning for those interested in entering Left in Darkness without a single substantial narrative clue. Without an inconsequential spoiler about the ultimate fate of our lead actress, it is almost impossible to discuss what is wrong with this film. So without further ado, those who deem such information important to their enjoyment of this movie should move on to paragraph two. Got it? Good. Anyway, here's the main problem with Left in Darkness's storytelling designs. We learn fairly early on that Celia, drugged, gang raped, and murdered during a fraternity party, is never coming back from the dead. In order for the plot to function, she must press on to either Heaven or Hell, not a sudden last act resurrection. As a result, there is an instant disconnect to this character – both emotionally and expositionally. We're with her as she starts off her birthday partying, but once the crime is committed, all we can see is how stupid, spoiled and silly this gal really is. Celia is a poorly conceived heroine, unable to learn anything except by obvious example, and whining when she's not winning. This too makes her hard to empathize with. Since she's the center of everything that happens, filmmaker Monroe has his work cut out for him. Everything else better shine, or we won't follow this foolishness at all.
Happily, this determined director more or less accomplishes his tall task. Far better than the dull, drippy It Waits, Left in Darkness combines a clever concept of the ethereal plane (though it tends to marry elements previously seen in preposterous paranormal stories like Ghost) with a solid sense of tone to deliver a decent, if sometimes dim spook show. All lead limits regarding Celia aside, Monroe manages a fine supporting cast including frequent genre gem Tim Thomerson (of Trancers and Dollman fame) Alias' David Anders (as Donovan) and a blink and you'll miss it turn by the original Bad Seed herself, Patty McCormick. While Monica Keena manages to be both bafflingly and brave as Celia, she does suffer from a sort of plastic crafted phoniness that tends to accent her obvious trips to a cosmetic surgeon. Her collagen lips even change size throughout the shoot. Still, these are mainly negligible quibbles in what can be, at times, a terrific ATTEMPT at otherworldly suspense. Monroe does a good job of setting up his realm, even if the script by first time screen scribes Jane Whitney and Phillip Daay does constantly reconfigure and rewrite the rules to suit the needs of the narrative. Though the concept of a 'soul eater' can sound fairly lame, Monroe manages to make it work through a combination of camerawork and interesting F/X.
Don't get the impression that Left in Darkness is some kind of forgotten masterwork, however. There are times here when Celia does so many mindless things that you just want to reach into the TV, grab her by the hair, yank her through the screen and slap some sense into her brain dead head. Similarly, Donovan is fairly obvious, and becomes even more so as the story goes on. We know a bad guy has got to show up sooner or later. Unfortunately, Left in Darkness doesn't provide many options – and thus the bleeding obvious addition of a few faulty red herrings. Still, with an interesting set design which turns a frat house into an ancient abode of horrors, to a way too zombified take on demonology, you've got some interesting things going on here. As a matter of fact, Left in Darkness creates quite a quandary. Half of us wants to dismiss it outright, to argue that Monroe and his creative team are simply stumbling over material done a dozen times better by far more mainstream moviemakers. We refuse to buy into the whole life/death dynamic, and find all the mirror fudging laughable, not laudable. And yet, something about this existential exercise in fear finds its mark. While it is far from perfect, there will be those who connect with this film as an inventive and engaging experience. As long as you go in with an open mind and low expectations, you'll probably be pleasantly surprised.
Presented by Anchor Bay in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image, Left in Darkness looks less like a direct to DVD diversion and more like a professional major studio macabre. The excellent use of color and lighting, along with Monroe's occasional optical flourishes, really help to sell the scares. Just like It Waits, which managed to make its woodland backdrop look absolutely stunning, Left in Darkness could clearly compete with the likes of Stay Alive or The Boogeyman for big screen recognition.
There are two different Dolby Digital mixes available on this DVD, and neither is exceptional – not in the way in which we expect aural elements on the format to function. The 5.1 Surround makes minimal use of the channels, and the 2.0 is equally flat. All the dialogue is discernible, and on occasion, some directional facets will be employed. But overall, the sound situation lets down Left in Darkness's potential effectiveness as a thriller.
As with most of these Cannell guided entertainment entities, Anchor Bay fleshes out this disc with a trio of intriguing bonus features. First up is a commentary track from Monroe and line producer John Duffy. As with his previous narrative turn for It Waits, Monroe has very little to say that's actually bad, and the self-congratulatory tone can be aggravating at times. Still, both men offer intriguing insights into the production, and drop a few funny anecdotes along the way. Equally engaging is the EPK level Making-Of documentary entitled In the Darkness. For the chance to hear from others in the cast and crew, this is a nice bit of added content. Again, nothing critical is considered, but at least we get a peek at the film from the actors' point of view. Finally an odd little extra entitled My 21st Birthday gives almost everyone associated with Left in Darkness a chance to describe said memorable celebration. A few of the stories are fun, but overall, this is a good idea made mediocre in the execution. Toss in some trailers and you've got a nice selection of context to help complement the main attraction.
When determining a substantive score for something like Left in Darkness, several elements must be factored in. While this critic was never bored, he was never fully integrated into the characters or situation either. While it is possible that some will be freaked out by the fear factors offered within, it's a safe bet that most will find this film more tantalizing than terrifying. Acting is also an important consideration, with our lead in particular causing the most concern. As a result, a clear rating is hard to come by. Trying to determine whether to recommend or reject a title like this can literally keep a reviewer up at night. As a result, a determination of Rent It is required. This way, everyone can make up their own mind. If you find yourself lost in this weird world of soul eaters and spirit guides, the trip to Bleakbuster was obviously worth it. On the other hand, if you discover that your suspension of disbelief is being tested to the very limits of liability by everything Monroe is manufacturing, it only cost you a couple of bucks to find this out. Truth be told, Left in Darkness is not that bad. It could just use a little more sparkle in the places that make movies manageable. Without them, it's a novel, knowing failure that's still sort of fulfilling.
Want more Gibron Goodness?
Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here