January 31, 2003 6:11am EST
Some 150 years ago a woman Matilda Nixon was blamed for the kidnapping of two local children and hanged by an angry lynch mob her body burned and scarred by the ray of a nearby lighthouse. After Matilda was buried however the kids turned up unharmed. She now haunts the town of Darkness Falls in the form of the Tooth Fairy and seeks vengeance on the community that lynched her. The film's protagonist is the troubled Kyle Walsh (Chaney Kley) who as a child woke up and saw the Tooth Fairy trying to kill him. He has since left Darkness Falls but returns to help his childhood friend Caitlin (Emma Caulfield) after she informs him that her five-year-old brother suffers inexplicable "night terrors." The Tooth Fairy's Achilles heel is light so when a citywide blackout hits the town no one is safe. The story is completely hokey and sparse on details but it is guaranteed to scare the crap out of anyone--even the most faithful horror aficionados.
Staying true to B-movie horrors Darkness Falls doesn't splurge in the star department. Kley who appeared on the small screen in the series Touched by an Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer makes his feature film debut as Kyle. His performance is a little flat here and his reaction to the Tooth Fairy is a little too blasé--even if this is not his first encounter with her. Another TV alum Caulfield (Buffy the Vampire Slayer Beverly Hills 90210) is slightly more convincing as she goes from skeptic to worrier to believer in the sinister Tooth Fairy. As her five-year-old brother Michael Lee Cormie is a thoroughly irritating child actor whose soul purpose in the film is to be cute and act vewy afwaid of the dawk. When he is not busy batting his eyelashes Cormie's character spends most of the film in a hospital bed because we are told he suffers from sleep deprivation. Yet Michael is asleep in almost every hospital scene.
Scribes Joseph Harris and John Fasano churn out a screenplay that is highly derivative of Wes Craven Presents: They released last November which revolved around night terrors and things that go boo! in the dark. But while They's villains--little papier-mâché figurines slathered in K-Y jelly--evoked more laughs than scares Darkness Falls' Tooth Fairy has a more sinister appearance: a wretched winged creature draped in black rags that appears wherever light is obscured while making these gnarly breathing sounds. First-time helmer Jonathan Liebesman manages to evoke fear without heavy special effects or blood and gore but by preying on every child's primal fear--the dark--using tried-and-true scare tactics that for some forsaken reason still work. "Why don't we just keep driving? We're safe in the car " a passenger in a car suggests seconds before old Matilda comes crashing through the windshield. It's a typical horror formula that will (I am ashamed to say) get you every time.
Told from the perspective of one innocent maid Mary Macearchran (Kelly MacDonald) the story starts as she arrives at the magnificent country estate of Gosford Park. On this particular weekend host Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) have invited an eclectic group to the house for a shooting party. The guests include Sylvia's two sisters (Geraldine Somerville Natasha Wightman) their respective loser husbands (Charles Dance Tom Hollander) her cantankerous aunt Constance (Maggie Smith) for whom Mary works British matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) and his American friend Morris Weisman (Bob Balaban) a film producer who makes Charlie Chan movies. As the upper-crust guests bicker about money and power the ranks of house servants personal maids and valets below make sure their charges are well taken care of under the guidance of the head butler Jennings (Alan Bates) head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) and head cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins). Through Mary's eyes we see that the glamour of the upstairs patrons and the seeming precision downstairs are not all they seem. The two worlds are destined to collide and when they do it leads to only one thing--murder.
One of the joys of an Altman movie is his uncanny ability to take a huge ensemble cast of really good actors and carve out a film from their personal stories. This style can also work to the film's detriment however and in Gosford Park the mostly British cast melds together almost too well. Often you can't even tell who's who. Still with all the talent involved there are at least a few bright moments: Smith as the wisecracking Constance an old lady who's very used to being waited on hand and foot gets all the best lines and delivers them flawlessly and veteran actress Mirren is also brilliant as the staunch Mrs. Wilson. She turns in one of the film's only heartbreaking scenes as her character grieves for the son she gave away long ago in the name of servitude. Also good are MacDonald as the young Mary Clive Owen as the valet Robert Parks who carries more than just a chip on his shoulder and Emily Watson as the headstrong chief housemaid Elsie. Northam too shows off his musical abilities as the suave piano-playing singing Novello. The rest all blend together except unfortunately the two American actors--Balaban comes off as annoying and Ryan Phillippe playing an actor pretending to be Morris' valet is in way over his head.
Interestingly the film is taken from a story idea dreamt up by Altman and Balaban. One wonders if perhaps the two were inspired to create Park after watching an episode of the classic '70s British television drama Upstairs Downstairs which was about a wealthy British household whose servant class had just as many dramas as the people they served (hmm sounds familiar). Sure it's conceivable that two Americans sitting around talking about making a distinctly British movie (and a period piece to boot) could pull it off and with a tremendous talent like Altman attached you'd think it would work. But Park misses the mark. The Altman-esque qualities are all there--the way he interweaves his characters' stories and shows real people with real emotions--but maybe just maybe Altman is simply out of his element. You enjoy the ride but it's not a ride through appealing territory and you're definitely watching from the window as the characters live a life you never really become a part of.