Jonathan Liebesman has been a director to watch as of late. After making his directorial debut at the age of 26 with the film Darkness Falls, Liebesman toiled away in the world of b-movie horror and indie thrillers before making a splash last spring with the big budget (if critically savaged) Battle: Los Angeles. Currently, Liebesman is finishing up Wrath of the Titans, the sequel to last year’s remake of Clash of the Titans, before moving on to a few other historical epics in development at Warner Brothers. All in all, it’s pretty high profile work for the young South African director who began his career with a very stupid, marginally entertaining movie about the tooth fairy.
Darkness Falls, recently released on Blu-ray, is a 2003 American horror film starring Chaney Kley as a young man deathly afraid of the dark. As a boy, Kyle (Kley) witnessed the death of his mother at the hands of a vengeance-fueled ghost. As rumors spread that the young boy was the cause of his mother’s death, Kyle was whisked away into foster care. Now, as an adult, he’s pulled back to the small town of Darkness Falls (yes, that’s really the town’s name) to help the younger brother of a childhood sweetheart confront his own fears of the dark. The ghost has been waiting, though, and soon Kyle must face his own personal demon — a demon that comes equipped with claws, a burnt ghastly face and a bloodthirsty appetite.
Darkness Falls is a briskly told, very short movie. With a running time of 85 minutes (ten of which are the closing credits), there’s not a lot of room for character development. As such, Kyle is reduced to a broad puppet — used to move the plot forward and represent some sort of half-baked hero’s journey. This is not the role young actors dream about sinking their teeth into buy Kley gives it his all — projecting a minute, but not easily dismissed, level of charisma.
Emma Caulfield plays Kyle’s childhood sweetheart — all grown up and still pining for that little boy accused of killing his mother. As Caitlin Greene, Caulfield is given even less to work with than Kley. In her years on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Caulfield showed that she had a natural talent for humor and plenty of charm. In Darkness Falls, the actresses’ only major Hollywood starring role, Caulfield is given the thankless task of playing straight-woman to the horror that swirls around her. Not even a true scream queen, Caulfield has no defining characteristics offered to her besides a deep, unbending loyalty to Kyle and her brother. The role could have been played by a wooden log — which makes it all the more saddening considering Caulfield is such a talented actress.
As Michael Greene, Caitlin’s younger brother, Lee Cormie is your horror movie standard haunted child actor. Deep soulful eyes? Check. Speech impediment? Check. Penchant for drawing creepy pictures that hint at a lurking evil? Check. Michael is a walking, talking plot device and as such will only grate on the audience’s nerves as the movie moves towards its all too predictable conclusion. Well, almost predictable. Darkness Falls is notable, I suppose, for being one of those rare occasions where a movie monster is dispatched using a finishing move ripped straight from the video game Street Fighter.
Michael is also the biggest clue towards the film’s failure — studio interference. It’s never really explained why Caitlin is the guardian of her younger brother. In fact, given their ages, it’s highly likely that the first draft of the script saw Michael as Caitlin’s son. But in this modern age of scrubbed down horror, you can’t have your female lead be a single mother! Studio interference would explain a lot of the film’s defects – especially those concerning the film’s monster.
In Darkness Falls, the Tooth Fairy is not a real fairy. In fact, it’s the ghost of Matilda Dixon, an elderly woman who used to give coins to local kids when they lost their teeth. After a fire scarred her face, Matilda’s kindness to kids stopped being so cute and became creepy and when two kids went missing Matilda was hung immediately. Boy, where those townsfolk embarrassed when the kids showed up the next day. It was too late for apologies, though, and Matilda had already cursed the town — transforming into an ever-present spirit of the night. All that back-story is told in the first two minutes of the film through a voiceover and never, ever mentioned again. This weirdly isolated bit of plot hints that there was a different back-story — maybe even a better one.
Thanks to a toy produced by McFarlane Toys around the time of the film’s original release, we know that there was a much different design for the monster — one that was more nature based and looked like the tooth fairy of tradition. This creature was reportably to be played by future Guillermo del Toro monster man Doug Jones before the design was scrapped in favor of one by Stan Winston. As it stands, Matilda’s design — lots of tattered capes and a porcelain mask hiding a scarred face —does absolutely nothing for the film.
Matilda, by her nature, is a motivated monster. Her entire existence is built on vengeance. Her design, though, is built for an expressionless monster — one whose murderous rampage offers no hints towards motivation or back-story. These two conflicting tactics of horror design — the sympathetic monster and the Lovecraftian shape — work against each other and create a schizophrenic monster that’s hard to appreciate.
Darkness Falls, it appears, is a nurtured version of what it once was and could have been. There are nuggets of something interesting buried in the sleek, well-shot directorial debut of Liebesman and the film is certainly a clue towards the big budget action movies the director apparently aspired to make. That said, Darkness Falls, as it stands right now, is a half-cooked exploration into the myth of the boogeyman. It relies too much on the audience filling in the blanks and scarring themselves with their expectations. It’s only appropriate, then, that this ghost story is, in fact, a ghost of a true horror film.
The film is presented in a 1:85:1 aspect ratio in 1080p high-defintiion. The soundtrack features a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The film certainly looks sleek but some of the detail is washed out. A lack of good color balance and saturated darkness gives the film a much cheaper look than I’m sure could have been presented with a proper high definition transfer. But let’s face facts. This is Darkness Falls we’re talking about. We’re lucky this film is on Blu-ray at all. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is fantastic. Great detailed stereo use offers an immersive audio experience.
Trailer: A theatrical trailer is all that is presented. While I may not have loved the film, I would have definitely enjoyed hearing a director’s commentary — if only to gleam clues to what the film used to be before reediting and rewriting.
Image Entertainment presents Darkness Falls. Directed by: Jonathan Libesman. Starring: Chaney Kley and Emma Caulfield. Written by John Fasano, James Vanderbilt and Joe Harris. Running time: 86 min. Rating: R. Originally released in 2003. Released on Blu-ray: October 18, 2011. Available at Amazon.com.
Tags: Battle: Los Angeles, Clash of the Titans, Guillermo Del Toro, James Vanderbilt, Joe Harris, Jonathan Liebesman, McFarlane Toys, Todd McFarlane, Wrath of the Titans