January 24, 2003 | Just about every cheap trick in the Scary Movie Playbook is used at some point in Darkness Falls, a horror thriller that reconfigures the legendarily generous Tooth Fairy as a murderously vengeful phantasm.
Rest assured, we get the mandatory scene in which a squalling cat shocks the bejeepers out of someone. And, of course, the most annoying secondary characters – in this case, a drunken bully and a sniveling coward – are among the bogeyman’s first victims.
To his credit, however, director Jonathan Liebesman generates at least a modicum of suspense, and a few low-voltage shocks, in his debut effort as a feature filmmaker. Revealing an instinctive flair for atmospheric visuals, he sporadically transcends the formulaic screenplay by relying on the power of suggestion. Even the exposition-heavy prologue is relatively painless, thanks to Liebesman’s clever use of stripped-to-essentials imagery and artfully applied shadows.
The movie’s title refers to a New England town where, more than 150 years ago, a kindly old lady named Matilda Dixon earned the nickname of Tooth Fairy by offering gold coins to children who gave her their baby teeth. Unfortunately, during a series of mishaps that would merit a chapter in When Bad Things Happen to Good Fairies, Matilda was hideously disfigured in a house fire, forced to wear a white porcelain mask – and, eventually, killed by a furious lynch mob. With her dying breath, she laid a curse on Darkness Falls.
More than a century later, poor little Kyle Walsh learns the hard way that local legends about a marauding Tooth Fairy are all too true. Worse, the wide-awake nightmare continues long after the youngster grows up and moves far, far away.
The adult Kyle (effectively played by Chaney Kley) is a skittish paranoid who barely keeps himself together with strong medication. Mindful that Matilda’s vengeful spirit will never venture out of the shadows, and can in fact be repelled with any kind of illumination, he keeps his apartment stocked with dozens of flashlights, hundreds of batteries and scores of emergency back-up lamps.
Kyle reluctantly returns to Darkness Falls – clutching a suitcase stuffed with flashlights – only because Caitlin (Emma Caulfield), his childhood sweetheart, reports that Michael (Lee Cormie), her 9-year-old brother, is having the same sort of bad dreams that Kyle used to have. Specifically, dreams about a wraith-like figure in a white mask that hovers over his bed.
Liebesman wisely refrains from giving us a clear view of Matilda until the very end of his movie. Before that, he offers only fleeting glimpses of the spooky fairy, showing us as little as possible while we imagine the worst. Matilda sporadically swoops down into the frame like a massive bird of prey, pouncing on anyone who slips into darkness. But even as she decimates the supporting cast, the on-screen mayhem remains relatively bloodless. In sharp contrast to most recent horror flicks, Darkness Falls is sufficiently discreet in its presentation of violence to merit only a PG-13 rating.