Thursday, July 23, 2015

Dark was the Night, Evil was the Creature

Cloven hoof tracks are traditionally a bad sign, at least when they were made by a two-legged creature. That was no deer striding through Sheriff Paul Shields’ logging hamlet. Something sinister is definitely lurking in those woods and it is getting increasingly aggressive in Jack Heller’s Dark was the Night (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Lately, horses and dogs have mysteriously disappeared, but Shields really doesn’t care. He is too busy blaming himself for the death of his youngest son. Although he has separated from his wife Susan, he still tries to be a proactive father to their remaining son Adam. However, he has to start sheriffing in earnest when the town wakes up to find unusually large and apparently upright cloven hoof prints snaking their way from one end of town to the other. Having absorbed scores of Native American legends about vengeful natural spirits, everyone basically freaks—and they’re not wrong.

Unfortunately, the awkward and pretentious syntax of Dark’s title evokes the cheesy, overwrought horror novels of the early 1980s. However, for a film about a big evil thing making dodo in the woods, it is remarkably restrained. Probably more time is allotted to seriously addressing Shields’ grief and guilt than monster attacks. While that might not sit well with genre fans, it is actually not a bad thing, thanks largely due to the strength of Kevin Durand’s performance. He is a big guy, but as Sheriff Shields, he looks drawn and haggard, like he hasn’t had a good night’s sleep since Johnny Carson retired. Even in a non-genre film, the honesty and commitment of his work would be impressive.

Dark is indeed an unusually character-driven horror film, offering up a tortured sidekick to its angst ridden protagonist. Lukas Haas (yes, that Witness Haas) is also quite down-to-earth and flinty as Donny Saunders, a former NYPD officer wounded in the line of duty, now serving as Shields’ deputy. They play off each other nicely, navigating the territory just in-between friends and colleagues. Budding cult superstar Nick Damici also gets to chew some scenery as the spooky trash-talking saloon-keeper.

Frankly, Dark is one of the few films that is better at interpersonal relationships than at going about its horror business. Still, Heller and screenwriter Tyler Hisel give the standard “gotcha” monster movie ending a bit of a half twist. Far better than you would expect, especially given the eye-rolling title, Dark was the Night (it sounds like something Yoda might say) is recommended for fans of small town supernatural fare when it opens tomorrow (7/24) in New York, at the AMC Empire.