Instead, all of this promise is reduced to merely being an introduction for the remainder of the film which is mostly a by-the-book high school comedy. To even call the film “horror” would be to stretch the meaning of that word to a breaking point as any such genre elements feel like an afterthought. A few moments of fun where the cast manages to bring silliness to the familiar story aside, the overriding result is one that is safe and superficial. While it goes through the motions of a teen comedy, which is effectively a subgenre in its own right, something more to be found in its supernatural premise that we get only hints of ends up going nowhere. Even as there may be some appeal for younger audiences, the teens deserved a more memorable film that could have been a crossover between Heathers and Beetlejuice. This one only ends up squandering the charm and talent of its cast who are stuck in the confines of a so-so comedy that just feels increasingly empty. For every more clever moment that elicits an earned chuckle, there is a whole host of meandering set-up and montage set to music that tries to give the experience some sort of entertaining energy to no avail.
The story that we get focuses on Darby and her relationship with the popular cheerleader Capri (Auli’i Cravalho) who dies early on in a “shocking” accident. It doesn’t really matter all that much as this is mostly a narrative contrivance for more conventional comedic scenarios. All the ways it tries to create something resembling edginess from on-screen text to self-aware commentary on the cliques of high school become hamstrung from the outset. The plot, which becomes more and more tiresome the longer it goes on, is that Capri is initially in denial about her demise before deciding that she wants Darby to get all her friends to throw one final party for her in absentia. While it sounds straightforward, this is going to be no easy task. As the school’s resident medium who is the only one that can actually see the dead, Darby has grown withdrawn and mostly keeps to herself. Contributing to this is that she lost her mother at the same time she almost died herself. Her well-meaning though teasing father Ben (Derek Luke) tries to support her, but he mostly exists in the background of everything.
There is a new boy named Alex who is played by Chosen Jacobs of the recent It which feels like it may be another horror reference when his character discusses Stephen King only for it to pass just as quickly. Though they have clear chemistry, he too becomes an afterthought as Darby is struggling to break out of her shell. Thus, she mostly talks to those she calls “deados.” The term is another odd, though possibly unintentional, reference point that recalls the atrocious 2013 film R.I.P.D. and bizarre 2022 sequel R.I.P.D. 2: Rise of the Damned which each used a similar nomenclature for those who managed to cheat death for a while. Regardless, Darby begins taking Capri’s advice on how to dress and behave in the hopes of becoming popular like she was when alive. When this starts to work, the film then throws in one contrived conflict after another in a lackluster attempt to keep things moving.
How does the fact that Darby can see dead people play into all this? Honestly, shockingly little. It is the prevailing thrust of the story, sure, but it doesn’t really tap into the particulars of it in any entertaining way. All the gags of dead people wandering around just feel wasted. While there is an interesting aspect where Capri can manipulate both objects and people, this is mostly used to advance the plot in a manner that feels tiring as opposed to thrilling. For all the ways it could have gotten sillier, Darby and the Dead never uses its premise in any creative way. Instead, we get largely expository narration that breaks the fourth wall in a manner most similar to the recent Persuasion in how clunky it can be. Part of this may stem from how the film is constrained by needing to be PG-13, but there are plenty of ways you could work within that. Unfortunately, this does so by cutting to black at any moment where there might be the slightest hint of violence, lessening what could be darker punchlines.
For any moments when it seemed like it was willing to be more absurd, it holds itself back from letting loose. Playing around with the possibilities of the dead influencing this world in a way most can’t see opens up plenty of fun opportunities. Think of the aforementioned Beetlejuice and the iconic dinner scene. There was no vulgarity needed there as it stands out solely because of how inventive it was. It was a moment that remains a classic because it is willing to be goofy, all of which is lacking here. Where is the sense of joy? The mischief and mayhem? The pieces are all there, but they get assembled in a manner that never amounts to much of anything. It isn’t entirely unsuccessful at what it sets out to do, but it aims so low that it is hard to give it credit for doing so. Even as it throws in some unexpected revelations to try to inject some sentimentality to the story, it leaves so little of an impact that everything is rendered vacuous. For all the ways that Darby and the Dead tries to give its abundantly safe story some life, it can’t break free of a narrative hellbent on dragging it to the grave.
Darby and the Dead is on Hulu starting December 2.