‘The Dark’ (2005)

How is it that this movie didn’t get a proper US release?

Probably because it was too similar to so many other, poorer movies released in 2005. In 2005, we saw the long-awaited and haplessly inferior sequel, ‘Ring 2‘, ‘Boogeyman‘, ‘Darkness‘, the American remake of ‘The Grudge‘ and earlier this year, ‘Silent Hill‘, and unnecessary remakes of ‘The Hills Have Eyes‘, ‘The Amityville Horror‘ and ‘House of Wax‘.

Earlier this week, a friend gave me the thumbnail production cycle of 18 months for any release. I can’t establish a complete timeline for this film, but there are so many aspects of ‘The Dark‘ that are similar to the latter duds, I can’t help but wonder if plotlines were lifted from the former whole-cloth and inserted into these other, inferior movies.

Adapted from Simon Maginn’s novel ‘Sheep‘ (synopsis), the title is an improvement, though I suspect that the novel placed greater emphasis on the influence of religion in small, isolated communities. Writer Stephen Massicotte seems to have stripped the novel of its Kubrickian baggage and inserted sly nods to ‘The Wicker Man‘ (1973) and ‘Salem’s Lot‘ (1979). While ‘The Dark’ has many similarities to the afore-mentioned movies, it somehow manages to be a better film, in the same way that Kevin Williamson-isms that color the opening scenes of the first American Ring remake, without plunging the whole thing into wink-ad-nod territory. Sure, we get to witness the obvious ‘peril’ of Maria Bello rummaging through the dusky attic of a Welsh cottage, but that’s NOT the punchline. The film continues to grow beyond, even it’s genre peggings to become, perhaps, a commentary on children and the effects of parental divorce.

These past few weeks, I have done a bit of reading on the origins of Japannese horror, vernacularly known as J-Horror: Invariably, these movies feature vengeful spirits – onryō and yurei, ghosts (and living prople) who have been the victims of grave misdeeds and died or been abused in particularly violent circumstance.

This vengence meme is, of course, not unique to Japanese horror.The most accessible example of yurei in American horror would be Clint Eastwood’s protagonist in 1973’s ‘High Plains Drifter‘, a Man-With-No-Name, who wreaks his revenge upon those who abused him when he was alive. As a genre piece, HPD was revolutionary for it’s time, as the ‘hero’ of the piece was himself a vengeful spirit; however the ‘status’ of Eastwood’s Stranger remains obscured for much of the film just as it was in 1999’s ‘The Sixth Sense‘. However, the signal difference between HPD and much J-Horror is that the ghosts are often female and the stories are seldom told from the ghost’s point of view.

Another American horror film based upon vengence themes is director Peter Medak’s 1980’s ‘film, ‘The Changeling‘,wherein the ghost of a deformed child returns from afterworld to reap his revenge upon the site of his abuse. This, of course is the theme of the ‘Ring’ and the ‘Ju-On’ movies, but what sets the Asian films off from the American movies is a certain irrationalism – the Asian ghosts aren’t interested in revenge per se – they’ve just got a general vendetta against the living. Hell is other people as they say, and thus, the spirits of J-Horror are often sociopathic, more than willing to take out everybody and everything, without sparing the pretentions of ‘innocence’. The spirits of J-Horror are Furies, as capable as the shark in ‘Jaws’ of claiming any of the protagonists should hey set foot in the water.

But this is not to say that the modern window-dressing of J-Horror didn’t affect American cinema before ‘The Ring’ – in 2000, Robert Zemeckis’ ‘What Lies Beneath‘ name-checked numerous tropisms of the genre: Vengeful female spirits, supernatural posession and revenge. While Michelle Pfeiffer and Amber Valetta may not have had the requisite dark hair of traditional yurei, the water themes remained intact, just as they did in the John Irvin’s ‘Ghost Story‘ (1981). It is not as though J-Horror really brings anything substantially new to the blood feast. Rather, the J-Horror studios are more than willing to shatter the taboos of a typical American audience, also making conventional PG-13 ratings inappropriate. Nowhere is this as well evidenced as by Showtime’s refusal to air Takashi Miike’s ‘Imprint‘ in their ‘Masters of Horror’ anthology. A particular form of Medical waste in the river? It’s fairly obvious why Showtime didn’t want to go there.

Though the original, Japanese version of ‘The Ring’, ‘Ringu’ was known and popular here in the States prior to 2001, these movies all have a certain added relevance in a post 9/11 and a post-Katrina world.

But to return to ‘The Dark': It is a good film, filled with trap doors, that only gets better as it goes on. And again, it’s a shame that this didn’t get released Stateside as quality of the work shames the cycle of Ehren Kruger mediocrity and the approbation that ‘The Descent‘ have received. ‘The Dark’ is an effective, low budget horror film with only six characters and a lonely Isle of Man setting. With a $5M budget it should have been a steal for US distributors, yet that was somehow never meant to be, even with cult favorites Maria Bello and Sean Bean headlining the effort.

Rating: ★★★½☆

NOTE: Subsequent research has revealed the ‘The Dark’ was produced on the Isle of Man in 2004, predating many of the 2004 and 2005 films mentioned in this review.

‘The Dark’ was released direct-to-DVD in the US on April 11, 2006.

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