Darkness (AKA T.M.A.) (2009) – By Cary Conley

Darkness is a methodical, brooding ghost story from the Czech Republic.  In the vein of Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, it is a dark and spooky trip through the mind of someone who may or may not be mentally unbalanced.  This keeps the viewer unbalanced as well since we don’t know if the mysterious goings-on are ghostly or the workings of an insane mind.

Marek (Ivan Franek) is in a popular rock and roll band, but years of constant travel, drugs and booze have worn him out.  He decides to take a break to work on his latest passion, painting.  He travels to his childhood home, vacated since his parents died in a tragic car accident and he and his sister were split up with his sister being committed to an asylum while Marek entered the foster care system.  While he was so small as to have very few memories of the townsfolk, they certainly remember him and the tragedy his family brought to their sleepy village.

But as Marek begins to paint, strange things begin to occur.  At first, these occurrences can be attributed to an old, run-down house.  But as Marek begins to have nightmares and his childhood memories slowly start to come back, the weird happenings increase both in frequency and violence.  Drinking heavily and abusing hard drugs, it becomes difficult for Marek to distinguish between fantasy and reality and answers come very slowly for him.  For instance, why does the radio turn off and on of its own volition and why does only one old children’s song play?  What would be enough strange occurrences for a normal person to decide to leave is merely confusing for someone in Marek’s state.

But when a groupie tracks Marek down and disappears after a night of partying and sex, Marek begins to wake up to the mysterious occurrences taking place around him.  With the help of a childhood playmate, Lucie (Lenka Krobotova’), and the local librarian/historian, Marek begins to put the puzzle pieces together.  The plot becomes a bit convoluted as secret black magic rituals, Nazi murders in the house during WWII, and a history of mental illness are tied together, but the story kept me interested all the way through.

In the end, the viewer must decide whether the ghosts are real or imagined and it is up to the viewer to interpret the closing scene.  I have always liked an open-ended film, one in which the viewer has a chance to determine how he or she sees the film, so I enjoyed the ending.

Released through Vicious Circle Films, Darkness isn’t nearly as violent as previous VC films and would probably only garner an R rating if it were submitted to the MPAA (as it stands, they have chosen to release it without a rating).  There is one scene that is pretty gruesome, but overall, the director goes for atmosphere instead of gross-out effects.

While the film has a dark, creepy atmosphere–made all the more so by the overcast and rainy Czech landscape and ancient, decrepit house that serves as the main set–there are also several scenes that are a bit dark physically, which made it difficult to see who was on screen and what was happening.  I’m not sure if that was an artistic choice or if the film needs to be recolored, but it’s a minor quibble and didn’t really impede my overall enjoyment of the film.  As I said before, there is a lot going on with the script and the plot gets a bit convoluted during the middle section of the film.  I think it would have been a bit better had the script focused on one reason for the haunting, but director Juraj Herz does a good job of keeping it all interesting enough to keep the viewer watching until the end and he also does a good job of tying it all together.

If you aren’t a fan of Vicious Circle’s films because of the typically extreme subject matter, I encourage you to try this one as it is much more atmospheric and much less violent than Vicious Circle’s other films.  Some fans may be disappointed with this release, but if you enjoy a good ghost story–especially some of the films that have been coming out of Spain the last decade like The Devil’s Backbone or The Orphanage, then you may like this film as well.