Dir: Jaime Balaguero. Spain-US. 2002. 102 mins.

Opening wide in Spain on Oct 11 following its world premiere at Sitges, Darkness has already broken local records for the year, with an opening weekend gross of $1.14m (E1.17m) from 275 copies. Pre-sales around the world - including to Miramax for English-language territories - assure the film wide exposure. Unfortunately, the talent Jaume Balaguero demonstrated in his award-winning debut feature, The Nameless (Los Sin Nombre), which attracted those very buyers, is given short shrift in this follow-up effort. Darkness's potential to terrify is cramped by the production's pretensions of crossing over to a wider audience by emphasising its big-name international cast instead. The prevalence of dialogue over spine-tingling scares could turn off the core audience of youngsters and genre fans if word gets out. In Spain a hefty marketing push from producer-distributor Filmax may temper that response. The test will be the film's staying power at the Spanish box office in the weeks to come: a second week take of $794,000, a drop of 30%, shows the signs are good.

The film opens with a child's voiceover and flashbacks to an unsolved mystery which took place at a house in Catalonia 40 years earlier. Cut to the modern-day, as a displaced American family innocently moves into the same house. Things aren't right from the start: teenage daughter Regina (Paquin) resents the move to Spain; distant mother Maria (Olin) is overly-exhausted from work; doting father Marco (Glen) begins to show symptoms of a recurring disease which turns him violently abusive; and young son Paul (Enquist) is the only one to sense the ghosts of six young children lurking in the house's dark recesses.

A creepy-enough central conceit concerning an occult ritual is left idling until the final third of the film, and when it comes it is too little too late. Balaguero has a gift for haunting visuals, cleverly crafted here with the help of cinematographer Xavi Gimenez and editor Luis de la Madrid using intercut scenes, flashes of memorable images and plays on light and shade. But any real suspense these effects might have built up gets bogged down too soon in the talk-heavy set-up and development segments. The first real scare doesn't come until an hour into the tale, and Balaguero doesn't let loose with the major frights - and a now-requisite surprise twist - until the finale.

What surprises most, considering the calibre of the cast, is the artificiality of the lead performances, grappling with a largely predictable story and some lame dialogues. Olin looks and sounds distracted, while Glen seems more at ease once his character goes mad. Paquin struggles to convey fear, but she's up against character inconsistencies as the fragile yet heroically brave impetus of the narrative's unwinding. The best performance may be nine year old Enquist's: burdened with the fewest spoken lines, he perfectly conveys a child's resigned comprehension of things adults can't or won't see.

It is conceivable that Balaguero intended the set-up to ring false, as a means of conveying the characters' faux facades, ready to peel away at the slightest scratch, and as a way to construct an eerie apprehension: something is amiss in this apparently normal family. That would explain how so much combined talent could create such a curiously rigid piece of work. But it may also be asking audiences for more patience than they are willing to allow.

Prod cos: Filmax, Dimension
Spain dist/int'l sales:
Exec prods:
Julio Fernandez, Carlos Fernandez, Guy J. Louthan
Exec co-prod:
Antonia Nava
Julio Fernandez, Brian Yuzna
Jaume Balaguero, Fernando de Felipe
Xavi Gimenez
Prod des:
Llorenc Miquel
Luis de la Madrid
Carles Cases
Main cast:
Anna Paquin, Lena Olin, Iain Glen, Giancarlo Giannini, Fele Martinez, Fermi Reixach, Stephan Enquist