Movie Review: The Darkness (2016)—Toby Oliver’s abysmal cinematography renders this an unwatchable mess

Here’s the official marketing blurb: A family returns from a Grand Canyon vacation, haunted by an ancient supernatural entity they unknowingly awakened and engages them in a fight for their survival.

darkness2016Straight up, skip this movie.  I will address content, but first I need to talk about the cinematography.  A cinematographer or director of photography is “responsible for achieving artistic and technical decisions related to the image.” The man responsible for the cinematography in The Darkness (2016) is Toby Oliver, and it’s his fault this movie is awful.  (It’s possible that he wasn’t in creative control and that it’s actually the director’s (Greg Mclean, AKA Greg McLean) fault, but Oliver’s is the name on the cinematography, so he has to take the blame for poor choices.)  Looking at the pair, it doesn’t look like the two of them make a strong team.  Oliver’s IMDB bio (written by himself) lists his highest profile credit as Sinister 2, for which he was credited with “additional cinematography.”  So it looks like this may have been Oliver’s first time in full cinematographical control, and Mclean doesn’t have a strong track record of making fabulous movies, so he either failed to correct Oliver’s abysmal artistic choices or made bad suggestions that Oliver ran with.  (Mclean is known for such classics as  Wolf Creek (2005), Rogue (2007) and Wolf Creek 2 (2013).)

So here’s what they did.  They decided to film everything with an obviously handheld camera, which can be fine, but they also decided to film every single shot in extreme close up, with the depth-of-field set to such a narrow range that nothing is ever fully in focus—not even the whole face of the character being shot.  Add in the jump-cut style of shooting, combine it with an unfortunate framerate interaction (it was too low, so the effect of the handheld movements was amplified, which made even smooth pans across landscape seem jerky), and the whole affair will induce migraines.  I only barely say this hyperbolically—if I hadn’t been planning on writing this review, I would have walked out of the theater to spare my eyes.  I desperately wanted to.  This headache will probably last the rest of the day, and I really can’t afford that with exams next week.

Even for the part of the shot that was in focus, it was never all the way in focus.  So pretty much every shot, there was never anything to focus on.  Folks, if you’re going for extreme close up as your artistic style, the shots need to be crystal clear.  You can only get away with shots that aren’t crisp when there are lots of things within the depth-of-field range to look at.  The depth-of-field problems spilled out into the film as a whole enough to cause plot problems—for instance, in scenes where it was really important to see the object a character was holding, you couldn’t see the objects clearly even though the camera was making an explicit effort to point at them.  In the case of the evil rocks that the child protagonist picked up, which precipitates the entire conflict of the film, you can’t read the symbols on them even though they are highly symbolic of the demons haunting the Taylor family and the camera clearly wanted us to be able to read them and make the connection later to the forms of the demons they represent.

So, yes, the abysmal cinematographic choices render this movie nearly unwatchable.

My final verdict is about a 1.5/5, and that’s a shame because the acting was pretty good, the characters felt nuanced and real.  Even Mr. Taylor’s pig of a boss has moments of surprising humanity, where he cuts the crap of his persona to reach out to someone he clearly thinks of as a friend.  Moments like that would have been the focus of my review if not for Oliver’s poor artistic judgement.  (The chacacters’ idiosyncrasies were amplified slightly, but that’s appropriate in a horror film.)

Another item that would have been a highlight is the rugged natural landscapes that the film opens on.  They are simply breathtaking: or they would have been if they hadn’t been filmed in shaky cam.

But there were also things other than the cinematography that were disappointing.  There is an over reliance on jump scares, when the movie certainly had the material to be genuinely creepy.  They used too much waterphone, which makes sense since the film advertises itself as being produced by the same people who made Insidious (2010).  (For an example of a film that does this sort of thing much more effectively, see my comments on Banshee Chapter (2013) in the June 2015 Cinematic Meeting.)

There were a few moments where the writing was not up to snuff.  Mr. Taylor has a scene with Mrs. Taylor, after their demon-touched son nearly burns the house down, in which Mr. Taylor nearly shouts at his wife that the kid is becoming dangerous and “why don’t you seeeeeee!!111.”  Twenty minutes later, when the kid does something else, she screams at her husband for not seeing when his behavior started to change.  Wtf?

The lore they were using is also interesting.  They used Anasazi lore, which is something not used very often.  I have no idea if it has any truthful relation to real Anasazi lore at all, but then that’s not the point.  Bottom line, it worked, and the portrayal of the actual forms of the buffalo, snake, coyote, wolf, and snake demons was honestly one of the scariest things I’ve seen in recent memory.  I have every hope that the monsters they made for this movie will fuel a future wave of horror gifs and memes, because they deserve mindshare and screen time, but that’s all that’s ever going to come of this movie.

Final verdict: 1.5/5, on grounds of poor cinematographic choices.  Avoid anything where Toby Oliver is listed as cinematographer.

IMDB Link:

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