Studio: After Dark Films
Director: Paul Soter
Writer: Paul Soter
Producer: Bobby Ranghelov
Stars: Pell James, Johnathon Schaech, Philippe Brenninkmeyer, Andrea Frankle, Lucresha Faye Wells, Jenn Foreman
Visions of a strange woman plague a family unable to sleep after moving into a secluded new home.
“Dark Circles” can be added to that pile of films occupied by the majority of entries in genre cinema. Neither remarkable nor deplorable, “Dark Circles” is simply a mildly entertaining thriller that makes for an 87 minute diversion unlikely to be regretted, but equally unlikely to be remembered.
Looking like a haggard cross between Peter Gallagher and Bill Moseley, Johnathon Schaech plays new father Alex. He and his wife Penny, Elizabeth Banks doppelganger Pell James, retreat to a secluded home in Louisiana where they expect to raise their newborn baby boy Tanner in peace. What they do not know, however, is that their intentions for quiet relaxation are about to be haunted by threats both tangible and intangible. In addition to the incessant din of a nearby construction site, the couple experiences visions of a strange woman determined to take their baby. And when Tanner refuses to sleep for any meaningful period of time, it is not long before the couple begins losing sleep themselves, and the strange happenings intensify.
“Dark Circles” is among the best looking independent horror features. Rarely does a genre film with limited scope not show the zeroes missing from its low budget, but cinematographer Yaron Levy puts imagery onscreen to rival any studio-financed theatrical counterpart. Although seen only briefly, a long tracking shot following wheelchair-bound Penny down a hallway depicts an actual working hospital. A bar scene features a thick crowd of patrons and bright neon beer signs. “Dark Circles” puts production value in front of the camera instead of cutting corners. Cheap productions would dress an apartment to cheat these locations, but writer/director Paul Soter demonstrates a true commitment to delivering authenticity.
Making his first feature length horror film, Soter does stumble a bit by relying heavily on an overused bag of cinema tricks. While the movie looks good, it features a smorgasbord of camera setups that other filmmakers stopped using years ago. Here, Soter and Levy try their hand at the time-lapse change of day shot, the harness pointed at the moving actress shot, and even the dolly in while zooming out depth-of-field change shot, among others. While nothing is wrong with employing these techniques, their inconsistency carries a whiff of experimentation and just a touch of desperation. With the rest of the show bearing such a professional polish, the gag shots stick out as the director being unable to resist playing with a new toy, whether it fits the film’s context or not.
One particularly original gag is a creative shot that starts with a woman facing away from the camera. Except in reality, she is wearing her coat backwards while she pulls her hair aside to reveal that she is actually facing towards the lens. While not necessarily outright frightening, it is an interesting visual that is not as clichéd as the other sight gags populating the runtime.
Just like those varied camera techniques, other elements of the film are an even mixture of things that work and things that do not. The deliberately slow buildup of the plot works for a while when establishing the central players. Playfully sarcastic exchanges and sly smiles at each other portray the main couple as very cute together and very likeable. But as the pace continues to tread slowly, the audience is afforded too much time to realize how unclear the story is. There continues to be an expectation that something more remains to be revealed about the woman plaguing Alex and Penny’s waking dreams, yet the final revelation ends up being completely underwhelming.
There is a focus on jump scares replete with music stings and whip pans that come from the tried and true category of horror film frights. What actually works best for “Dark Circles,” however, are its depictions of a baby in peril. While a kitchen knife whirls in the garbage disposal, it is a challenge not to cringe as little Tanner unknowingly reaches towards the spinning blade. And as Alex paces closer and closer to Tanner’s precariously positioned wheeled wagon at the top of a staircase, the urge comes to place hands over the eyes. “Dark Circles” may have had better success with audience reactions if there were more scenes focused on these dangers to the baby instead of the dangers to the parents.
When the payoff finally arrives, “Dark Circles” answers the remaining questions with a nearly laughable radio newscast narration that offers an explanation for the preceding events. The film was already waffling on the fence of average thriller, but the final reveal pushes “Dark Circes” squarely into the realm of mediocrity. The production looks terrific, and Paul Soter’s effort is easily respectable. But ultimately, the slow-paced story leaves an unsatisfying taste in the mouth that makes one wish for a better movie to replace the flavor.
Review Score: 70