Review by Jay Bowman
If we’re going to view horror cinema as resulting from simple mathematical equations to prove a point using too many words—and I think we will—it’s important to understand that the elements of horror are all variables, and the value of any such element is directly proportional to how scarce it is. So really, I guess we’re actually talking about horror as a form of economics? I dunno.
Anyway, The Dark Within is a feature-length psychological/paranormal horror flick that does one trick again and again and again, each time reaping diminishing returns. Director/writer David Ryan Keith plays the “that wasn’t real…or was it?!” card so many times that it’s impossible to get invested in any of the characters because they’re probably all hallucinations of a small child playing with a snow globe. By the time the credits roll viewers will feel cheated, bored, or both depending on how high or low their expectations were set.
In the year of our Lord 1991, a small boy named Marcus is unknowingly taking part in his father’s military experiments testing psychic abilities relating to unnamed entities. Shock horror, something goes wrong and we’re thrust into the grisly future of the present day. Adult Marcus (played by co-writer Paul Flannery) if rife with psychological issues. His psychiatrist Dr. Norton (Stephanie Lynn Styles) presses him on why he thinks his parents abandoned him as a child. Of course, the distraught, slightly unwashed man doesn’t remember, so the good doctor arranges for him to visit their long-vacant cabin to see if it will jog his memory.
The vast majority of the film takes place in the derelict cabin. Surrounded by dense trees and coated in dust, it’s the perfect setting for a humble horror movie, but things fall apart almost immediately. First, Marcus spends much of his time alone, meaning poor Paul Flannery is acting opposite of no one. I’m not saying that watching a man rifle through drawers, listen to a hidden Dictaphone tape, and stare nothing in particular is like watching your friend play Resident Evil really, really poorly, but it’s pretty close. Second, it’s here where Marcus begins hallucinating: a record begins playing on its own, CGI something or anothers dart just past the corner of his eye, and all the while he wakes up loads of times to establish that none of it was real, maybe.
It wouldn’t be quite as cheap a trick if it was established why it was happening, but The Dark Within doesn’t want to commit, much like a film reviewer trying to write an economics joke. We learn from an audio recording and a very, very elaborate hallucination (maybe?) that Marcus has some kind of psychic ability, and the entities who never get named want to use him as an entryway into our world for reasons. The poor boy is damaged goods, essentially, but why then is he imagining drinking a wacky serum his dad hid in the woods twenty-some-odd years ago? Or if he actually did drink it, why has it inexplicably refilled itself when he sees it next? How does the door to his dad’s secret military testing ground—located conveniently next to the cabin—just disappear when he tries to show it to his estranged ex-girlfriend (who may have actually been his psychiatrist—hallucination!) but appear when he’s all alone? By my rough estimate, there are thee answers:
– Literally nothing is real, in which case The Dark Within is, at best, a clumsy representation of mental illness, or
– Things are selectively real depending on whether or not the writers thought suddenly waking up from a dream was a good twist, in which case The Dark Within is just clumsy, or
– Everything is real, in which case everyone Marcus associates with is just screwing with him, perhaps contributing to his mental illness
I like to keep positive when I’m watching movies, even those that fail across the board, but I was struggling to care about anything happening to Marcus or, indeed, the man himself before the halfway mark. By the fifth time reality was inexplicably turned on its head, I found myself resisting the urge to skip ahead. When the movie faded to black, I couldn’t stop skipping back to confirm that the ending was just as empty as everything else. I can’t help but think the experience would have been better if I listened to the former impulse and ignored the latter.