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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
Darkness Falls (2003)
2 Stars

Directed by Jonathan Liebesman
Cast: Chaney Kley, Emma Caulfield, Lee Cormie, Grant Piro, Joshua Anderson, Emily Browning, Andrew Bayly, Rebecca McCauley
2003 – 85 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for terror and horror images, and brief language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 25, 2003.

Being a lifelong fan of the horror genre, "Darkness Falls" is the kind of film that I am torn on. My more critical side had red flags going off throughout, noting that the characters were thoroughly one-dimensional and flat, most of the performances were as lifeless as an embalmed cadaver, and the narrative offered illogical plot gaps around every corner. At little more than 75 minutes without the wildly protracted end credits, the movie skips from its first act to its suspense-filled climax in a mad rush to keep the action coming and the audience from having time to think about how thin the whole thing is.

Meanwhile, the horror fan-boy in me cannot overlook the fact that, as a purely visceral experience, "Darkness Falls" more than delivers its fair share of seriously scary moments. As amateurish as first-time director Jonathan Liebesman is with handling his performers and their roles, he is a clear technical expert, heightening a distinguishable, foreboding atmosphere while delivering thrills and chills at a clip rate.

Originally titled the more catchy, self-explanatory "The Tooth Fairy," "Darkness Falls" begins with a gloomy, sepia-toned prologue in which the backstory of Matilda Dixon is told. In the town of Darkness Falls, Maine, circa 1850, Matilda was a kindly old lady who would leave the children of the town a gold coin in exchange for their baby teeth, garnering her the "Tooth Fairy" nickname. After a fire left her skin horribly burned and sensitive to light, Matilda hid behind a porcelain mask, and she suddenly became an outcast. When two children came up missing, the town wrongfully accused her of their kidnapping and promptly executed her by hanging. Before her death, Matilda vowed that she would seek her revenge on the town every time a child lost their final baby tooth and dared to peek above their covers to see her.

Switch forward to modern times, the preteen Kyle Walsh (Joshua Anderson) has just lost his final baby tooth and, in a sequence of pure terror (not to mention the scariest in the whole movie), comes face-to-face with the masked phantom. He ultimately survives by fleeing into a well-lit bathroom, but witnesses the death of his mother.

Twelve years later, an adult Kyle (Chaney Kley), now living in Las Vegas and still haunted by memories of the traumatic experience, is contacted out of the blue by childhood sweetheart Caitlyn (Emma Caulfield). It seems Caitlyn's 8-year-old brother, Michael (Lee Cormie), has been hospitalized, deathly afraid of the dark, and Kyle is the only person she can think of who may be able to understand and help Michael. Kyle hardly has time to reacquaint himself with Caitlyn before the Tooth Fairy has returned, hellbent on destroying anyone who gets in her way of finishing the business she started with Kyle twelve years ago.

The general premise of introducing the Tooth Fairy as a murderous villain is a novel, yet inevitable, one. There is something just awfully creepy about the mythological figure—a fairy who breaks into children's bedrooms as they sleep, leaving money under their pillow in exchange for teeth. Unfortunately, this clever horror twist on the subject of Matilda is forgotten about within the opening thirty minutes. She simply becomes a horrifying, disfigured creature who flies through the air, her swooping black cape swirling in the wind behind her, killing pretty much anyone who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The only way to be safe is to stay in the light—something that becomes increasingly difficult for potential victims Kyle, Caitlyn, and Michael when a power outage sweeps over the whole of Darkness Falls.

Because the lead characters and their relationships are nearly transparent, and the rest of the cast are merely mince meat, it was actually a wise choice to rush through the exposition and get to the action. The movie, which is over in a veritable flash, is little more than a prolonged chase sequence that hops from a police station to a hospital to the town's seaside lighthouse. A picture like "Darkness Falls" lives or dies based on its effectiveness, and director Jonathan Liebesmen has concocted a serviceably suspenseful one, tautly edited by Steve Mirkovich and Alan Woodruff. Because much of what transpires occurs in complete darkness, cinematographer Dan Laustsen has done moody wonders with every frame, keeping things just light enough to allow viewers to see the action, and just dark enough to have them wondering about what it was they have really seen. As for the Tooth Fairy, she is the latest masterful creation from Stan Winston, wickedly gruesome and threatening enough to give anyone the goosebumps.

If only the lead actors held such close scrutiny. Chaney Kley (2001's "Legally Blonde") and Emma Caulfield (TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), as Kyle and Caitlyn, are complete dullards until it comes time to run for their lives and scream a whole bunch. The only line Caulfield is able to sell with relish comes after a black cat has jumped out and scared her. "A cat," she exasperatedly states before musing, "why not?" As the young Michael, Lee Cormie is okay as he channels the put-upon children from 1999's "The Sixth Sense" and 2002's "The Ring," but why they have cast an Australian child to unsuccessfully put on an American accent is mindboggling. The best performances, surprisingly, come from the young versions of Kyle and Caitlyn, played memorably by newcomer Joshua Anderson and Emily Browning (2002's "Ghost Ship").

"Darkness Falls" is sloppy on the basic storytelling level—why, for example, has Matilda waited 150 years to wipe out an entire police station and hospital staff when her original goal was to go after children, and how can she sometimes appear in brighter settings, while other times can only strike in pitch blackness?—but its careless inconsistencies are hardly worth noting in a film that has obviously been made for strict entertainment purposes only. As such, it succeeds—for horror buffs out for some cheap shocks. "Darkness Falls" is a zippy, spooky, mostly goreless thriller that achieves what it set out to do, and the character of the Tooth Fairy is a particularly memorable and nightmarish new villain. The biggest jump-out-of-your-seat scare is, fittingly, saved for last.
© 2003 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman