Have you thought about death lately?
Horror fans are intimate with death. Whether sudden or prolonged, subtle or explicit, and depicted in hyper-realistic or preternatural artistry, death is often the modus operandi of modern horror films. Often taken to absurd or nauseating extremes, it is parodied, glorified, exemplified, and gorified.
And sometimes theology is tossed into the terminal mix. Not too much, mind you, as that would hold down the body count as characters go through annoying self-searching dialogs, pausing the spouting blood action mid-vein long enough for some superficial, really-need-more-time-for-this discussions on the meaning of life and death, heaven and hell. You know, that sort of stuff.
"Jason. Put down that head! I've got to think about all this!" or "Freddy, cut that out — no, not like that! — I mean you need to wait until I discuss the raison d'etre of your existence juxtaposed with my hacked-up dead friends — oh, and Tommy, too, who I never liked that much anyway." Such character introspection in a horror film tends to muck up the story, and require mental gymnastics today's audiences may not be in shape for. It is so much easier to show it — death, I mean. No lengthy expositives, just nifty death throes and screams, and body parts scattered aplenty. Not much thought required to understand that.
So when a horror film brings death into close proximity with religious themes such as heaven and hell, it needs to balance its story between just enough horror action and just enough theological posturing to move it along in an entertaining and thought-provoking manner within a logical – story context – framework.
Left in Darkness, recently released by Anchor Bay Entertainment, while a definite improvement over Anchor Bay's uneven Tooth Fairy, still fails to live up to the potential hinted at in its interesting premise: a young woman dies and must figure out how to get into heaven before her sanctuary is overrun by soul-eating nasties.
I suppose it's the idea of having to figure out how to get to heaven that turns me off. Dying is hard enough; but to be forced to play 'heaven, heaven, where the hell is heaven' when soul-eating demons roam around waiting to suck out your soul like some spiritual marrow — to me that's plain cruel and unjust.
Then you've got the Devil, or some other evil prowling around pretending to be good and all that, but he's just trying to sucker you into making the wrong decision. Where's God in all this? Why is it in just about every horror film where you have demons and devils galore, God is nowhere to be found? Or God is giving you sparse and cryptic clues to help in your battle with evil — hey, could use some angels with sharp glowing swords here, please! Or better clues, please! Hello, is anybody there?
So, as you can see, I'm a bit biased when it comes to horror films that base their premise around heaven and hell, God and Devil scenarios. They rarely go the extra mile, and instead use Christian metaphors in a simplistic context.
In this film, Monica Keena, as Celia, does a good job of playing an unhappy dead person. As a child, we see her in a cemetery reluctantly visiting her deceased mother, who died giving birth to her: no guilt there, of course. Tim Thomerson plays her grandfather Joe, who raises her after her dad abandons her. As he asks her to talk to her mom, she refuses and runs away, right into oncoming traffic. She is saved from a premature death by an invisible boy named Donovan, played by David Anders. Donovan acts like a protecting angel, keeping her safe until…
Cut to her twenty-first birthday, and grown up, usually depressed Celia joins a friend to party at the local frat house. The unsavory frat boys spike her drink, and she has a brief waking moment as she is being raped. But too much of the drug was poured into her drink and she dies from an overdose. As she wakes, and slowly realizes that she's dead, the story unfolds.
In the 'making of' documentary on the DVD, the director discusses how certain choices were made due to a limited budget. I am not sure how jump cuts, and accelerated scenes jazz up a production, but I find them annoying and unnecessary. Such editing techniques tend to ruin the sustained tension that a scene can convey. Since the production budget could not afford CGI, in-camera techniques were used instead, along with tried and true makeup effects. But even well-done in-camera and makeup effects cannot make up for an illogical script.
As Celia searches for answers, Donovan, her childhood savior appears, as well as her grandfather Joe. But Joe, after explaining her situation, turns into a soul-eating demon. Donovan tells her that his soul has been eaten by a demon, including all his memories and feelings, so he can't be trusted. He also explains to her that the frat house, in the netherworld in which she now finds herself, is her sanctuary until 2 AM. After that, the soul-eating demons can enter. How Joe, aka demon soul-eater, got in ahead of schedule is not explained.
At least in Beetle Juice, the Maitlands got an afterlife handbook. Celia has to take in all this afterlife nonsense — without even a friggin' Cliffs Notes — while fighting to keep her soul. Donovan is not helping matters either, as he pressures her to do what he wants. Why she only has until 2 AM to find the physical doorway, stairway, or closet to heaven is also not explained. And why does she need to find the entrance to heaven anyway? Isn't dying bad enough? Why would God want her to play detective? It is theological plot devices like these that drive me crazy.
I don't know about you, but when invisible childhood friends with a big letter D in their name suddenly show up , I tend to be suspicious. Is Donovan really her guardian angel, or is he another demon — just one higher up the food chain? She lets him into her sanctuary, and he points her to a dark doorway that leads downward. Which leads me to another pet peeve: why are heaven and hell always depicted as north and south destinations?
Donovan helps her fight against the soul-eaters as she makes up her mind whether to trust him or not. The man who raped her and caused her death commits suicide (why is not made clear), and he joins her in the frat house sanctuary. Given the tension that such a meeting and situation would naturally create, it's a shame the script does nothing with it. Instead, the story unfolds more like a Ghost Whisperer episode, and avoids the heavy metaphysical connotations.
The spirits of her grandfather and mom pop in and out to offer her the typically cryptic guidance to find the entrance to heaven, and hurry it up will you, time's running out! Her sanctuary apparently doesn't run on Duracells, and it begins to wink out here and there in predictable fashion, letting the soul-eaters in. The tension is never really nail-biting, as the pacing is more like a TV movie than a more daring cinematic endeavor.
Having said all this , if you are not bothered by illogical cinematic theological implications (and can actually say that three times fast), the film is not that bad. The acting is earnest, and the production values are good given the low budget. The extras on the DVD include the aforementioned "Making of Left In Darkness" featurette, and an informative and interesting commentary by director Steve Monroe and line producer John Duffy.