Studio: Image Entertainment
Director: Jack Heller
Writer: Tyler Hisel
Producer: Jack Heller, Dallas Sonnier, Dylan Narang, Stefan Nowicki, Joey Carey
Stars: Kevin Durand, Lukas Haas, Bianca Kajlich, Steve Agee, Nick Damici, Sabina Gadecki, Ethan Khusidman, Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum, Heath Freeman
A sheriff coping with a personal tragedy becomes a small town’s best hope for protection from a mysterious creature lurking in the woods.
As the sheriff in the normally quiet town of Maiden Woods, Paul Shields finds his hands unusually full when wildlife begins disappearing, birds migrate out of pattern, and residents resort to whispering Native American legends as an explanation for cloven hoofprints and bumps in the night. Paul’s mind is already spinning over a losing battle with grief following a death in the family that has the sheriff sharing custody of his son with his estranged wife. Standing at Paul’s side is Donny, a former NYPD officer relocating from his metropolitan lifestyle for the slower pace of being yin to Paul’s yang.
Small town sheriff has become as commonplace in horror movies over the past forty years as mad scientist was in the four decades prior. Double the power of such a stereotype when the protagonist is burdened with self-blame over an accidental tragedy. Similar footnotes could accompany other elements constituting the base ingredients for “Dark Was the Night,” too. Big city lawman turned rural country deputy. Confused youngster in the midst of a parental separation. Grumbling locals and grandpa’s superstitions. “Dark Was the Night” is filled with components all moviegoers have seen before, and yet the familiarity is rendered irrelevant because of how intelligently the archetypes are bolstered through sincerity both from the screenplay and from the cast.
The emphasis on drama stemming from character interaction means the roles do not require rewriting the core characterizations. “Dark Was the Night” simply, and smartly, relies on its actors to fill in those blanks through performance alone.
“Dark Was the Night” lets its actors say more with their looks than with their dialogue. And few actors can say more with a deceptively simple expression than star Kevin Durand. Durand has a way of welling his eyes in a manner where you are never fully certain if he is about to explode in a boom of rage or implode into a curled ball of weeping depression. It makes him the proverbial perfect fit for a man tormented by inner turmoil while maintaining a commanding exterior of authority.
Lukas Haas does the same thing through his own subtle mannerisms as Durand’s deputy, and that trend trickles down the entire roster to populate the film with enough humanity for every character to breathe as a genuine person. The story is played so seriously by everyone involved that it feels far realer than any cryptid creature on the loose movie logically should.
As by-the-book as the setup is, “Dark Was the Night” still has tricks in its pocket. Maiden Woods may be the only backwoods town in horror filmdom where when the fit hits the shan, the tobacco-chewing, camo-capped hillbilly hunters don’t do the obvious macho thing by gathering up their guns and forming a monster hunt posse. Even though there are scenes of locals giving the sheriff some alpha male grief, they ultimately follow the lawman’s lead and act sensibly when instructed. Behavior that actually considers the safety of others instills a sense of community among the townspeople, which only deepens the empathy for their plight, and the believability of their actions.
“Dark Was the Night” goes a long time before revealing the nature of the monster prowling the periphery of Maiden Woods. Cloven hoofprints suggest something devilish. Paul’s personal problems could be part of a supernatural or psychological connection. Local superstitions hint at possibilities including the Wendigo, Bigfoot, or the Jersey Devil.
But unlike something such as Gareth Edwards’ 2014 “Godzilla” (review here), where the constant teasing of the big reveal becomes an obnoxious waiting game, it never matters here. “Dark Was the Night” is a creature feature, but it is not about the creature. The focus is firmly on the human element, and thus, the restraint in the reveal is a boon instead of a hindrance. What the creature actually is or what it looks like turn out to be the least interesting things about it. More significant is what it represents to the people facing its threat and how they react to the danger.
There are audio stings and jump scares, although there aren’t any whip pans or Predator-style POVs to artificially inject unease. Suspense is achieved naturally with a steady-handed camera and sure-footed directing, both of which keep the film grounded in a sense of reality. Without gore and with no significant human body count to speak of, the film instead finds an organic approach to fostering fright with a slowly smoldering style.
Story development slows down instead of speeding up on both sides of the movie’s midpoint. As a result, the screenplay gets stuck in some sideplots that don’t manifest into anything meaty, like Donny’s nearly non-existent budding romance, or the tension with the townies that is somewhat unnecessary given how everyone relates to one another in the end. It’s also arguable if arcs like Paul’s path towards self-forgiveness are ever really resolved at all.
But “Dark Was the Night” overcomes a backwards-sliding second act and sequences that don’t service the main storyline with a consistent tone and competent execution. Ryan Samul’s blue-hued cinematography washes the setting in a look that is cold without being overly bleak. Darren Morze’s slowly rumbling soundtrack amplifies the tension when called for, and underscores it in between. Put a cherry on top with a very cool final shot before cutting to black, and you have the most entertaining and memorable creature in the woods story in quite some time. “Dark Was the Night” doesn’t break the monster movie mold, but does fill it to capacity with eerie atmosphere and creeping chills elevated by terrific acting.
Review Score: 80