One doesn’t expect to encounter bright, proactive families in haunted-house thrillers, but “The Darkness”‘s protagonists still manage to distinguish themselves with their hilarious scary movie cluelessness. We learn early that Peter (Bacon) and Bronny Taylor (Mitchell) are having marital problems, and their children are teetering on the recipe of disaster. Michael Taylor (Mazouz) is autistic, and, since the family camped at the Grand Canyon a few months earlier, he’s been exhibiting increasingly severe signs of psychosis that Peter and Bronny are steadfastly determined not to notice, most gallingly when they somehow manage to rationalize Michael setting his room on fire, letting it pass without any action taken. Meanwhile, Michael’s sister, Stephanie (Fry), is discovered to have an eating disorder, and is having pronounced problems with Michael, who may or may not be sneaking into her room and leaving ashy handprints on her bedspread.
So how do Peter and Bronny handle this smorgasbord of misery? They leave the children alone in their clearly haunted house to wine and dine Peter’s piggish boss. Contrary to what many believe, fictional characters don’t have to be likeable to command a narrative, but they do have to be interesting, and their struggles have to have stature. Peter and Bronny are such self-absorbed nitwits that it’s hard for us to have much stake in what happens as demons work them and their kids over in a series of redundant, generic horror-movie set pieces that rip off “Insidious” by way of “Poltergeist.”
“The Darkness” has its chilling images, particularly a silhouette of a demonic entity seen through a window from the outside of the Taylors’ house, but there’s little hint here of the ferocious visceral craftsmanship that director Greg McLean exhibited throughout “Wolf Creek” and even “Rogue” and “Wolf Creek 2.” The filmmaker seems handcuffed by the strictures of über-producer Jason Blum, the horror genre’s new William Castle, which usually require a PG-13 rating and an abundance of predictable fake scares accompanied by bludgeoning stomps and shrieks on the soundtrack. This enterprise is so listless that one can’t even work up a proper head of self-righteous steam over the spooky Native American clichés that drive the plot.