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DVD Review: Darkness: The Vampire Version

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Sifting through every horror film that comes out — or even a good chunk of them — is like fishing a wedding ring out of a septic tank. You have to swim through a lot of crap to find that little piece of gold. Leif Jonker's Darkness is indeed that piece of gold, and considering the number of crappy films I've seen lately, its presence in my DVD player is a truly wonderful thing.

The plot is sheer simplicity. A vampire named Liven is slaughtering everyone who crosses his path in a small American town. His victims rise from the dead with a powerful thirst of their own, and soon there are vampires everywhere. A young man named Tobe has lost his family to the vampire plague, and now his only desire is to destroy Liven. Tobe soon joins forces with other survivors and they find themselves on a path to one of the goriest climaxes in the history of horror cinema.

Darkness accomplishes the seemingly impossible by making vampires scary again. These are not the aristocratic goth chic vamps of the Anne Rice books or the action movie villains from the Blade movies. The undead of Darkness are more like the pack-hunting animalistic vampires of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. There are no fangs or capes here, just the walking dead with a raw, animalistic thirst. Jonker's vampires are not above using weapons to bring down their prey, and while I'm sure a stake could kill them, a bullet through the heart does the job just as well.

This is a remarkable film for a number of reasons. Pre-dating the no-budget success of Kevin Smith's Clerks by a year, Darkness sprang from a similarly impoverished budget in 1993. Darkness started life as a film with a 19-year-old director who recruited friends as cast and crew (the age range of the players, with one or two exceptions, is limited to late teens to early twenties). Furthermore, the film was never intended to be shown to the general public. It was created as a feature-length demo to show to potential investors, much like Sam Raimi's Within the Woods was used to raise funds to produce The Evil Dead. While Clerks went on to become a more or less mainstream success, Darkness became something of an underground film. The fact that it is now available in such a mainstream establishment as Best Buy is quite astounding.

The acting ranges from fair to poor and the film never looks slick by any stretch, but that's not the point. The raw look is one of the film's greatest charms. The soft, grainy 8-millimeter image enhances the dreamlike quality of the film, much the same way as black and white photography does. You're not so much watching a movie as you are experiencing a nightmare. The simple but effective synthesizer score usually consists of a melancholy dirge that loops continually, not unlike the kind of music you would hear in a horror-based computer game.

Not all the gore effects work as well as they might — there's a chainsaw to the hand gag that really shows Jonker's reach exceeding his grasp — but the sheer volume and enthusiasm of the gore forgives a lot. The Evil Dead influence is especially obvious when our heroes are doused in the blood of the vampires they dispatch. The red stuff is just everywhere in this movie, and it's done with style.

This two-disk DVD set represents The Vampire Version of the film. Jonker has finally been able to make the final cut that budgetary limitations didn't permit back in the early nineties. The image has been digitally remastered, and there are some great side by side comparisons on the disk to show just how profound the difference is. Jonker's original release version of the film, transferred to video from film via a camcorder and a projector in his kitchen, is included on the second disk. There are also several audio commentaries and sundry extras to keep you busy for awhile.

A real triumph of talent, enthusiasm, and perseverance over budget, and one of the best horror films I've seen in quite a while.

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