Watching Darkness was a novel but unsurprising experience for me. You see, this is my first Czech horror film and yet it feels like I've seen it countless times before. Perhaps that's because it spends all its energy in developing a spooky atmosphere but offers nothing new in terms of the story that it tells.
We jump into the film as Marek (Ivan Franek) is jamming out with his rock band in front of an adoring audience. After the show, he makes the abrupt decision to move out to his old family home for a bit of relaxation including a whole lot of painting. Predictably enough, the house isn't as cozy as he remembered it being. The place is in shambles and clearly hasn't been occupied in a very long time. To make matters worse, the townsfolk aren't being very welcoming. They seem to know more about his past and the history of his home than they are letting on. At least he finds a childhood friend, Lucie (Lenka Krobotova) to keep him company.
Just as Marek has settled in and even embarked upon a relationship with Lucie, his old band mates show up with a pretty groupie in tow. What follows is a wild night of debauchery as Marek reverts to his old rock and roll lifestyle. He wakes up the next morning only to find that his friends have gone back home and the groupie has disappeared somewhere in the house. Perhaps he should go into the cellar and look behind the door that is ominously marked Verboten. Or, maybe he should talk to his one-eyed sister who desperately wants out of the mental asylum she's locked away in. Marek may have come home for a bit of soul-searching but he's about to find a lot more than he anticipated.
In describing the film I haven't even touched upon the elements that aspire to turn it into a ghost story. That's because they seem grafted on to the main tale which is about the complex relationship between Marek and his sister and the secrets that are locked away in their past. Sure there are spirits of little kids roaming around the house and some nonsense about Nazi experimentation, but they serve no purpose other than to provide a few jump scares and to muddy the thematic waters. The tale of a man losing his grip on sanity can be just as credible without resorting to clichés as they are presented here. The splintered storytelling also damages the film by undercutting the character of Marek's sister. She should be a force of nature and yet she is inserted into the final act as an awkward afterthought.
Director Juraj Herz does an admirable job of accentuating the grimy and run-down aspects of Marek's surroundings. Why any sane person would want to live there is beyond me and Herz drives this point home right from the start. He even milks the supernatural elements, superfluous though they may be, for all they are worth. Although they only distract from the central storyline, they do add to the overall visual appeal and strengthen the film's atmosphere. I won't say too much about the performances themselves in order to avoid spoiling a few climactic surprises. Suffice it to say that all the performers carry their roles without any difficulty. There are a few moments that require a character or two to make abrupt tonal changes. It is to their credit that these moments remain believable.
Darkness hits all the marks on its czechlist (sorry) but it still comes up short. It's quite clear that the ugliness in the film belongs in the human realm so dragging a few innocent ghosts into the picture adds nothing. This could have made for a compelling and dark character study but instead we have a handsomely mounted mish-mash of ideas that is less than the sum of its parts.
The movie was presented in a widescreen aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. This is a fairly dark film featuring a desaturated color palette. Other than a few shots that lacked shadow detail and a bit of moiré, I found the visual presentation to be satisfactory. It gave me a good sense of the grime and gloom that surrounded the lead character.
The audio was supposed to be presented in a 5.1 Dolby Digital mix but it sure sounded like a Stereo mix to me. At the very least, the rear surrounds were waaaaaaay underused. The audio track was presented in Czech with burned in English subtitles (which were oddly absent during the opening musical number). Other than a few missing channels worth of audio, the mix was fairly clear and free of defects.
The main extra feature is a Making of (21:02) that includes interviews with most of the cast and crew. Director Herz discusses his affection for the suspense genre while co-author Martin Nemec talks about his alarming ability to sense the presence of dead people. In fact, some time is even devoted to spooky events that happened on set during the filming of this movie. Just to drive that point home, we even spend some time with a Tarot reader and an occultist who attempts to talk to a ghost. The disc closes out with a Teaser trailer and a Theatrical trailer for the main feature along with a few for other films.
Sometimes a haunted mind can be much more compelling than a haunted house. Director Juraj Herz fails to recognize this as he takes the tale of a few damaged individuals and shoves in supernatural elements where they are unwelcome. Darkness is not an abject failure. It has gloomy atmosphere to spare and parts of it peek through with the expected chilling effect. It just doesn't capitalize on these strengths to tell a compelling self-contained story. Rent It.