Ghost-hunting ‘reality’ shows have a big audience. The expansion of cable television networks like the Discovery Channel and A&E along with the increased availability of cheap ‘ghost-hunting’ technology have probably played small parts in feeding public appetite for the subject matter. From Paranormal State to Ghost Adventures, supernatural seekers can usually find something on their television screen to satisfy their curiosity. Our most popular entry on the blog is still the review of Zak Bagan’s Demon House we posted last month.
Now this week we have another entry in the ‘ghost hunters’ genre – Within the Darkness. I heard absolutely nothing about this movie before watching it for the blog, but as a fan of the supernatural, it was hard to resist checking it out. Is is worth the watch?
The premise of Within the Darkness bares some passing resemblance to found-footage horror film, Grave Encounters. Austin Barnett, an aspiring filmmaker, believes that a paranormal docu-drama series is his ticket to fame and fortune. Along with his friend and camera person, Jesse, and girlfriend, Lucy, Austin sets out to film a pilot episode for his proposed Paranormal Dimension” at the infamous Hewitt House. Neither Austin nor his friends know the slightest about ghost-hunting. Instead, they rig a series of ‘staged scares”, going so far as to bring in a self-professed psychic to add some realism to their pilot. However, once filming commences, Austin and company soon discover that the Hewitt House may have a few surprises for them.
Horror or Comedy?
The similarities between Grave Encounters and Within the Darkness end with their premise. While Grave Encounters was a serious film attempting to produce genuine scares, Within the Darkness is clearly intended to be a horror-comedy. In fact, as the film progresses into its third act towards the climax, I would argue that it’s more of a comedy borrowing horror elements than an outright horror-comedy.
From its outset, Jonathan Zuck (Director, Writer) and Cheryl Compton (story) seem intent on satirizing ‘television ghost hunters’ like Zak Bagans. Austin’s hapless attempts at documenting staged paranormal events and his hackneyed narration feel like digs at some of the television personalities you’ll find in these reality shows. And for the most part, the film’s early laughs work. In particular, one scene with Austin and Lucy, which initially feels like a gratuitous sex scene, plays for a good laugh riffing on Austin’s self-involved ego.
A Dull Middle Half Drags Things Down
Some viewers may feel cheated by the trailer for Within the Darkness, which seriously downplays the film’s humour and promises a more conventionally scary movie. Yet for its first third, Within the Darkness does largely follow through on what the trailer promises. There are a few genuine jumps scattered across the film and with fairly decent looking production values, the story feels like it is moving towards its supernatural confrontation.
Unfortunately, the film seriously lags in the middle portion. It takes a long time between setting up its initial premise to the delivery of the anticipated supernatural elements. Compton and Zuck’s screenplay tries to throw in some character drama – a pregnancy and possible romantic rivalry – but these elements feel more like placeholders than actual character development. It’s sadly a threadbare film that needed either more humour or a more careful ratcheting up of tension for its middle act.
A Final Twist that Redeems (or Hurts) The First Half
As Within the Darkness marches to its third act and climax, the carefully arranged and familiar premise established earlier feels cast aside as the film’s tone shifts wildly. Poor special effects that feel lifted from better films and very broad humour take over in the final 10 minutes or so. How most viewers will feel about the film will ultimately rest on their reaction to its final twist. Without spoiling anything, the film takes an abrupt turn unexpectedly with a twist that forces the audience to re-interpret what initially felt like an incongruent third act. Does the twist make Within the Darkness a good film? Not really. But it does save it from being a truly terrible film.
Never Quite Clicks
Within the Darkness is the second ‘ghost hunters’ film we’ve reviewed here on the blog in the last month. While I understand many people probably enjoyed Demon House, I would take Within the Darkness over it any day – at least this film has some self-awareness and pokes a little fun at the concept. The acting is fine for a low-budget film with Erin Cline (Lucy), Dave Cohen (Austin), and Tonya Kay (Jesse) all acquitting themselves well. Compton and Zuck deserve some credit for trying something different with a familiar premise. Within the Darkness never quite hits the heights it was probably intending but it’s not a terrible way to spend an evening if you have nothing else to watch.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: C