Horror fans are intimate with death. Whether sudden or prolonged, subtle or explicit, depicted in hyper-realistic or preternatural artistry, the intention or completion of death is the modus operandi of all horror movies. Often taken to absurd extremes, it is parodied, glorified, exemplified, and gorified. Sometimes theology is tossed into this terminal stew of misery and body parts. Not much, as that would hold down the body count while characters go through annoying self-reflective dialogs, delaying all the spouting-blood action with cumbersome discussions about life and death, heaven and hell, and why me?
Jason, put down that head! Let’s think about all this! or Freddy, cut that out—no, not like that! That’s not how we communicate. 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 movie tends to muck-up the story and require mental gymnastics today's audiences may not be in shape for. It is easier to show death than to explore its boundaries. No lengthy expositions, just nifty death throes and screams and body parts scattered aplenty. So when a horror movie brings death in close proximity to religious themes such as Heaven and Hell, otherwise collectively known as ‘the afterlife,’ it needs to justify its story between just enough horrifying action and just enough theological surmising to move it along in an entertaining, thought-provoking manner.
Left in Darkness fails to live up to this potential. Part of me finds its premise annoying: a devout young woman, Celia (Monica Keena), dies and must find heaven’s entrance before her limbo sanctuary is overrun by damnation. Dying is hard enough. To be forced into playing heaven, heaven, where the hell is heaven, like an Amazing Race episode with a detour of soul-eating demons wanting to suck you dry, shoots for a target of horror story convenience sans sense. However, there’s also a part of me that finds it an interesting dogmatic challenge to encompass it onscreen with sufficient suspense, terror, and ecclesiastical justification to warrant this wicked situation.
It could make for one hell of a horror movie, especially if you're an atheist.
But the pivotal question almost every horror movie ignores is where's God in all this? And this movie ignores that question, too.
Riddle me this, horror fan: Why is it in every horror movie where you have demons and devils in the game, God’s always on the sidelines while the Devil’s players are hot in the game?
God drops a few cryptic clues to help her, but I'd be screaming for brawny angels with flaming swords instead.
And why is it HER battle?
Celia is an unhappy dead person. In flashback we see her in a cemetery reluctantly visiting her deceased mother who died giving birth to her. Her grandfather Joe (Tim Thomerson) is with her. He raises her after her dad abandons her. Joe asks her to talk to her mom, but she refuses and runs away, right into oncoming traffic. She is saved from premature death by an invisible boy named Donovan (David Anders). He acts like a protecting angel keeping her safe most of her life.
On her twenty-first birthday, Celia joins a friend for a party at the local frat house. Frat boys spike her drink and rape her unconscious body. Too much of the drug is used and she dies from an overdose. She wakes up, realizes she's dead, and now must search for a way into heaven. Clumsy jump-cuts and fast-motion scenes don’t aid her struggle and fail to hide lapses in story logic and budgetary shortfalls. Donovan, her childhood savior appears. So does Joe. But Joe, after explaining the game’s rules to her, turns into a demon. Donovan tells her Joe's soul has been eaten by a demon who digested all of Joe's memories and feelings. He explains the frat house in the netherworld she’s now in is her sanctuary until 2am. After that, the soul-eating demons can enter and gobble her up. How or why Joe became a demon is not explained.
At least in Beetle Juice the Maitlands get an Afterlife Handbook. Celia has to wing it without even Cliffs Notes. Donovan is not much help either. He pressures her to do what he wants. And why she only has until 2am to find the physical doorway, stairway, or closet to heaven is not clear. Why she even needs to go through all this trouble is not explained. She’s been a good girl.
Why does God need her to play detective?
Donovan does help her fight soul-eaters while she makes up her mind whether to trust him or not. She lets him into the frat house sanctuary—he couldn’t enter until she okayed it—and he tells her she needs to go to the basement to save herself.
Sure, why not? The DARK basement.
How dumb do the writers think we are? If this is their idea of foreshadowing, it’s done with a sledgehammer.
The man who caused her death commits suicide and joins her in the sanctuary. The natural tension such a meeting would generate is not explored here. Instead, it’s more like a Ghost Whisperer episode: metaphysical connotations, emotional confrontations, and appropriate dialog simply don’t apply.
The spirits of her grandfather and mom pop in and out to offer more cryptic clues to help her find heaven’s entrance and test her stress level telling her to hurry up, time’s running out. Her sanctuary starts winking out here and there, letting soul-eaters in. Any potential tension or suspense during all this is never nail-biting because Steven Monroe’s pacing is like a TV movie with scenes timed for commercial breaks.
Boil it all down to the bone and it’s about Celia making a choice.
She needs to listen to her grandfather, or her mom, or her guardian angel, or the voice within herself. Why she needs to do this is never explored. At least if she was an atheist I could relish the irony of her situation.
Like the afterlife, this movie is a complete mystery.
Just not a good one.