The Absence of Light
Overview: Two competing secret agencies battle for control of a computer program capable of determining whose subplots get resolved before the end of the movie.
Directed By: Patrick Desmond, 2004
The Case For: A cast featuring a veritable who's who of horror heavyweights, including Tom Savini, Tony Todd, and Michael Berryman.
The Case Against: This movie may well ruin the careers of a veritable who's who of horror heavyweights, including Tom Savini, Tony Todd, and Michael Berryman.
This movie fails to impress from the moment you hold the DVD in your hand and see its slogan printed across its face: "The Absence of Light: Mans Darkest Day Has Come." Nonetheless, I'm hesitant to badmouth writer/director/producer/editor Patrick Desmond. The man has to have some serious mob contacts if he was able to assemble a cast like the one featured in The Absence of Light (alternate title: Dark) without having a single credit to his name. I mean, you start with Tom Savini, the Godfather of Gore, the man behind the splatter in movies like the original Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th, as well as the only actor badass enough to strap a gun to his crotch and call himself "Sex Machine" in From Dusk Till Dawn. Then you add Tony Todd, known to horror fans everywhere as the menacing Candyman, whose horrifying deeds inspired a chilling movie franchise, and even more terrifying, a song by Aqua. As if that's not enough, throw in Michael Berryman, whose misshapen visage (the result of a genetic disorder) and genuinely intimidating mannerisms has netted him roles as psychotic juggernauts, mutant bikers, and brutal monsters in over sixty films. All of these guys have individually played instrumental roles in turning low budget productions into cult classics. Put them together, and you'd think you'd be on the fast track to an underground sensation, even if they're only doing it because some guy named Vito threatened to break their knees.
Enter Patrick Desmond and his easy to follow Patrick Desmond Formula for Ruining a Good Thing:
The Patrick Desmond Formula for Ruining a Good Thing
Step 1: Cast your best actors in roles that prevent them from using their natural talents.
Let's see: we've got Tom Savini playing a guy who sits behind a desk all day and probably doesn't have any sort of weaponry soldered to his grundle; Michael Berryman paying a polysyllabic one-man think tank - the wussiest kind of tank there is - and Tony Todd playing a menacing research scientist. Check.
Step 2: Ignore the expertise and experience of the people around you.
Tom Savini: "Hey, Patrick, the gore effects in this movie really suck. You know, if you want, I could make them absolutely amazing. All I would need is a roll of duct tape, a box of clementines, and twenty minutes.
Patrick Desmond: "Shut up, Beardface. I'm calling the shots on this picture. More crappy CG!"
Step 3: Stick as many characters as possible into an already incomprehensible plot, ensuring that no one will know what's going on at any time.
Check. Trust me.
Step 4: Add vampires and/or mutants (preferably "and").
Oh, we're talking "and," baby. Chiggidy-check.
The mass confusion begins with "Whiplash," the leader of the PLAGUE, a covert and corrupt secret agent cell. Whiplash gives the order to place a bomb in the car of a woman who happens to be the fiancée of an agent working Division 8, another covert and corrupt secret agent cell. PLAGUE is ostensibly the more evil of the two organizations, but only because they chose an evil-sounding name for themselves, whereas Division 8 chose the clever tactic of choosing a name which seems to indicate that there are at least seven other Divisions. For the record, there aren't.
The unsuspecting woman gets in her car and drives off, with the PLAGUE operatives in hot pursuit on motorcycles. Whiplash then has a difficult decision to make - remotely detonate the bomb and kill the woman, but risk damaging a bunch of expensive, custom made motorcycles (he doesn't care about the guys actually on the motorcycles, because he's so damn evil), or let the woman live, but save his precious bikes. The choice is quickly rendered moot when one of the motorcyclists has the bright idea of shooting at the car. He actually is a good enough shot that he manages to shoot the woman in the head. Unfortunately, he's also using a powerful enough gun that the bullet goes straight through, hits the bomb (which is in the trunk, so figure that one out), and blows up the woman, the car, the motorcycles, and all the nameless functionaries riding them.
I feel that it's important that we take a moment to really analyze this scene, since it establishes not only the scope of the movie's villainous presence, but also the motivation for one of its protagonists. So, we've got a shadowy organization of ultimate evil who want to express their displeasure with an agent of an opposing organization by blowing up his fiancée, who, as it turns out, is also an agent. That part doesn't even come up until halfway through the movie, but I'll reveal it now, because that's the kind of generous guy I am. Seems like they could have expressed their displeasure by blowing up the agent himself, but whatever, let's work with what we've got. The bad guys send some henchmen to plant a remotely detonated bomb in the trunk of this woman's hatchback, but since no one expressly told the henchmen, "After you plant the bomb, you might want to give it some space," they assume it's their job to stick to that thing like stink to a Denny's restroom. Then this gang of motorcycling geniuses prove to actually be better shots than anyone else in the movie; good enough to shoot a woman in a moving car through the head from the back of a motorcycle. It seems to me that if you have marksmen like that on your side, you probably could have just told them to shoot her and forgotten about the bomb altogether. You know, just cap her when she's coming out of her house or something. But no, they want to go with the bomb idea, so the henchmen end up shooting the bomb, and everybody dies in a big fiery mess.
Yes, the bad guys effectively hit their target, but it cost them a half dozen henchmen with surprisingly good marksmanship, as well as some supposedly pricey motorcycles. Even giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming there is some good reason for blowing this woman up, rather than just shooting her, this whole plan could have been salvaged by telling the henchmen to stay clear once they planted to bomb, or putting the bomb on a timer, or rigging it to explode when she started the car. I just want to make it perfectly clear that the big bad villains in this movie who are supposedly a shadowy group of elite global terrorist can't come up with a plan that couldn't be improved by watching the first thirty seconds of Casino.
Enough about the bad guys. Surely the good guys must be at least a little better, right? Well, not exactly. See, The Absence of Light throws us a curveball by presenting us with a world where even the good guys are pretty evil. They're just not such dicks about it. Enter Division 8's most decorated agent, the man known only as Puritan. Interestingly, did you know that Division 8 rewards its agents with free trips to Senor Funtime's All You Can Eat Taco Buffet? He's fat, is what I'm trying to say, here. Puritan meets with Senator Criswell, who is fighting for reelection in six months. The trouble is, Criswell can't keep it in his pants, and someone caught him on tape with a prostitute. I don't know how this came as a surprise to him. From the snippets of the tape we get to see, the camera couldn't have been more than three feet from the bed. Still, this is a blow to his reputation that the senator doesn't think he can survive, so he hires Division 8 to clean up his mess. Not literally. That would be gross. Criswell has used Division 8 to hide his indiscretions in the past, for a cool half a million a pop. This time, Puritan offers him a special rate of just three hundred thousand. Just so we're all on the same page, allow me to reiterate: the rest of this movie, in which dozens of people will die, others will be tortured, and entire buildings will be destroyed, is based on a job done on a discount.
Puritan reports back to his boss, a man known only as Higher Power, played by a mopey-looking Tom Savini. Higher Power spends most of his day getting backrubs from a bevy of women who supposedly work for Division 8, yet miraculously never seem to get deployed in the field. He pairs Puritan up with Sultan, the be-mulleted agent whose fiancée was recently the result of the sloppiest assassination in history. Seriously, Rasputin was killed with more subtlety.
On top of dealing with Senator Criswell's wandering weenis, Puritan and Sultan also have to deal with the fact that PLAGUE is evidently bent on obtaining a computer program called Devour, which basically acts as a database of everybody in the world. Division 8 has a copy. They use it to track people basically every single day. Nevertheless, they are also desperate to find copies of Devour. Are you starting to get confused? Don't worry about it. This is a totally pointless subplot. An awful lot of screen time is devoted to finding copies of Devour, despite the fact that the information it contains is largely useless. Just keep reminding yourself that nothing even remotely related to Devour is in any way necessary to the story. Neither is all this crap with the Senator. Still, Puritan and Sultan find it necessary to slog through about an hour of these aggravating plotlines, and I will do no less.
Before they can truly take to the field, however, they need the tools to get the job done right. And they wait a week to get them. Yup, they just sit around for a full week before even trying to start doing this job. So, after this purely arbitrary amount of time has passed, Puritan and Sultan pay a visit to Q - er, I mean, to their team scientist, who gives them a case full of gadgets. The scientist only explains the purpose behind two of the four gadgets - a tracking device with built-in taser, and some x-ray specs. The other two devices will never be seen again. For that matter, neither will the x-ray specs. Puritan also pays a visit to his mentor, a one-eyed former Division 8 agent. In case this movie wasn't loaded with enough clichés, tired plot devices, and hackneyed character hooks, it seems this is also Puritan's last mission before retirement. Thanks, every cop movie ever made! Oh, and also, when he retires, he can reunite with the woman he left years ago, because this job requires his every waking hour and she couldn't be a part of that. Thanks, every cop movie ever made and Men in Black!
Using Devour, which looks like someone left a Geocities page out in the sun, Puritan and Sultan track a bum who somehow got his hands on a copy of the Criswell sex tape. Yep, the first fifteen minutes of this movie was devoted to establishing that there's a horrible multinational terrorist network out there, but now we have to watch these guys try to find a hobo. Fantastic. Even more fantastic is the information that Devour provides about their target, including tidbits like, "Low-level IQ. Believed homeless. Intends to blackmail the senator for a mere Ten-Thousand dollars."
"A mere Ten thousand dollars." First of all, Judgy Wudgy was a bear, Devour. Ten thousand bucks is a lot of money to some people, even if it is improperly capitalized. However, it's certainly not a lot of money to someone like Criswell. Ten grand is all the guy wants in exchange for the tape (and Devour knows this, because this "believed homeless" man was kind enough to register his intentions with some sort of online blackmail database, I guess). But instead of paying ten thousand to hush this whole thing up, Senator Criswell pays three hundred thousand to have other people hush it up for him. This is why the U.S. government has budget problems.