A Mystery for the Ages: Why is DARK WAS THE NIGHT not getting the amount of praise heaped on indie horror darlings such as THE BABADOOK and IT FOLLOWS?
Into the Woods we go...though not on some revisionist, musical journey. These woods are far from the fairy tale forests of Stephen Sondheim; they are even farther from the simplistic monster movie territory promised by the posters ("Evil's roots run deep"). Presented in images crisp and clear, these woods are not exactly dark when we first see them, but rather faded. This look initially seems like a simple visual conceit for a "revenge of nature" horror flick - we see a logging company knocking down trees and think, "Aha, they're destroying the greenery, and there's no green in the photography" - however, it turns out to be an indicator of something more subtle and profound.
After the loggers get what they deserve (at the hands or claws of an unseen something), we meet Paul Shields (Kevin Durand), and the pain in his eyes instantly tells us - before we know anything else about him - that there is some damage deep inside. The sheriff in a small logging town, Paul simply wants to go about his routine and do his job, but in an amusing turn-about on Columbo's "just one more thing, sir," the officer of the law is the one repeatedly forced to continue conversations he would rather terminate, as the locals (his soon-to-be ex-wife, his pastor, his deputy) strive to get him to open up about the tragedy haunting him. The exact nature of that tragedy is revealed incrementally, but long before the details come out, the impact on Shields is clear, etched in every expression, which strives but never achieves an affectless quality meant to insulate him from the pain that his friends want him to confront. Which soon brings us to the realization that the cold, colorless photography does not symbolize the destruction of nature; instead, it represents that state of Paul's soul, alive but drained of vitality, unable to see or even seek the vibrant hues that should be all around him. Yes, this is a horror movie - and a good one - but its tension does not derive primarily from the mechanics of suspense; far more than the more highly lauded The Babadook, Dark Was The Night wants to make you feel its character's pain.
With its attention on the drama, Dark Was The Night is in no hurry to throw monster stuff at the audience; the pacing is deliberate but never slow, carefully working the old-fashioned approach of an extended build-up so that the crescendo, when it comes, is not just empty noise but a genuinely involving climax. In a way, the film is a mini-miracle, holding attention with a protagonist who is trying to remain passive and avoid confrontation: in a scene that could serve as a synecdoche for the whole film, a potential barroom fight (the local yokel berates the sheriff not only for not doing his job but also for failing to protect his family - cutting a little too close to Shield's personal tragedy) is nipped in the bud before it can serve as an excuse for a gratuitous brawl. Although one can easily imagine Michael Bay lamenting, "They missed a real opportunity there," the scene is not anti-climactic; instead, its unresolved nature adds more powder to the keg we all know is eventually going to explode.
Along the way, Dark Was The Night is peppered with gradually escalating incidents that ratchet the tension on an almost subliminal level: you are so focused on the characters, that you almost do not realize the way the film is sucking you in. After the logging incident, with its brief flashes of severed limbs, the film mostly eschews graphic horror in favor suggestions: shadows in the night, silhouettes in the woods, missing pets, mysterious tracks through town, unseasonal animal migrations, savaged carcasses left on a road, bodies of murdered hunters hung in trees, and eventually a pair of hideous feet that leave us guessing as to the creature's whole appearance, which - in a welcome bit of restraint - will not be revealed until the end.
The effect is very similar to what M.Night Shyamalan achieved back when he knew what he was doing, circa Signs (2002). In fact, Dark Was The Night is a virtual remake. Again we have the isolated setting; the protagonist emotionally devastated by family tragedy; the younger male co-lead (in this case a deputy instead of a brother) trying to keep up the faith; and the confrontation with uncanny horror that forces our hero to snap out of his depression to protect kith and kin.
The difference is that, though set in a small town where church attendance - or, in this case, non-attendance - is clearly a big deal, Dark Was The Night is not particularly interested in showcasing a "road to Damascus" moment for Paul; his character arc is instead based on his surname: having failed to protect a family member in the back story, he will (with a little help) become the shield that saves the town, or dies trying.
Yet one cannot help feeling that a kind of redemption is taking place. When Paul's new deputy (Lukas Hass), a recent transplant from New York, speculates that his presence is perhaps part of a grand plan ("maybe I was sent here to protect you... or you're here to protect me"), we see the derisive disbelief in Paul's eyes, but (unlike Mel Gibson's character in Signs), he is too reserved to express open contempt. The film then goes on to vindicate the deputy's sentiment, if not his belief in divine intervention, when the two face the threat side-by-side at the climax, which takes place inside the town church, ostensibly because Paul considers it the safest place to defend, but which adds a symbolic overlay whether Paul likes it or not.
The exact nature of the threat is unclear, which makes it more believable. There is no Johnny Explainer character to tell us exactly what the monster is and how to kill it, with the sort of firm conviction based on unconfirmed legends that exists only in the horror genre. Yes, the local bartender (Nick Damici) tells Shawnee tales of a mythical creature that's haunted the forest for generations, but in a nice touch, even he does not fully believe the stories, though he does lock his door at night, just to be safe. In a similar way, Deputy Saunders is poised on the cusp of belief - not convinced yet not dismissive - making the gradual transition easier for the audience to believe, especially when mounting evidence eventually provokes Paul to theorize that the logging project has displaced the creatures, forcing them closer to town and hence leading to numerous close encounters with something that previously kept its distance. This adds a touch of credibility, almost of sympathy, to the creature, whose human victims tend to be invading its territory (first loggers, then hunters).
After teasing the audience for 90 minutes, eventually the filmmakers have to deliver. Only here does Dark Was The Night fall short of its aspirations - or, rather, resets its aspirations considerably lower. The final revelation of the creature is a major disappointment, not only because of the cartoony CGI but also because of the ill-conceived design: the reptilian appearance might be appropriate in a Florida swamp but not in a snow-bound forest. Worse yet, instead of ending when it should, the film adds a cornball twist, which may have intended to set up a sequel but instead merely screams, "This is just a dumb monster movie after all!"
Fortunately, these final faltering moments cannot destroy the overall effectiveness, which is guaranteed to hold you spellbound with a level of sincerity too seldom seen in the genre. The entire cast, from the leads all the way down to the bit parts, are as committed - and probably more convincing - than any Oscar-bait ensemble. It's a sign of what's right with the film that Bianca Kajlich, as Paul's wife, is appealing and attractive but not too glamorous to be believable in this setting; and even though the story relegates her to the sidelines (like a typical female in a monster movie), her pain and her concern for Paul still register. Durand sells his character to us with complete conviction from start to finish - ironically revealing the soul of a character who is trying desperately to remain hidden in his protective cocoon. Even the presence of Lukas Haas - which seems like a desperate low-budget attempt to get some kind of name into the cast - turns out to be a master stroke: instead of thinking, "Oh look, the kid from Witness, all grown up:' the audience realizes, "He's really good."
It certainly helps that characters are not the usual gang of stereotypes, or if they come close, at least they don't have signs plastered on their foreheads reading, "Kill me - I'm The Film's Official Asshole." Instead, the script works satisfying twists on expectations, with personal animosity dissolving in the face of common danger, creating a sense of humanity that yields near-unbearable suspense despite a relatively low body-count. This is not a film you watch to enjoy seeing the dumb-asses dispatched in gruesome ways; you watch it desperately hoping that everyone will survive.
Dark Was The Night delivers on genre expectations with craftsmanship and artistry worthy of a wide theatrical release and an embrace by horror fans; it enhances those virtues with an eye for character and careful storytelling, which should appeal to a broader audience. The only thing the film "lacks" (outside of a worthy ending) is the sort of artistic pretension or overt thematic conceit that critics can identify as elevating a horror effort above its genre. If viewers are left with one enduring mystery, it is not the exact phylum, genus, and species of its monster; it is this: Why is Dark Was The Night not as highly lauded as indie horror darlings The Babadook and It Follows?
Dark Was The Night is currently playing an exclusive engagement at the Universal Citywalk AMC 19. The film is also available through iTunes, Amazon Instant View, and Vudu.