Studio: Chiller Films
Director: Colin Theys
Writer: John Doolan, Michael Laimo
Producer: Andrew Gernhard, Zach O’Brien
Stars: Sean Patrick Thomas, Kristen Bush, Dean Stockwell, Athena Grant, Blanche Baker, Anthony Del Negro, Cara Loften, Ron Komora, Kathleen Huber, Marty Gargle
A doctor moves his family to a quiet country town harboring a sinister secret involving blood sacrifice and a tribe of subterranean savages.
Based on a novel by Michael Laimo, “Deep in the Darkness” seems to take more of its inspiration from author Ira Levin by mixing themes of “The Stepford Wives” and “Rosemary’s Baby” (movie review here) with a dash of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” added for good measure. That recipe makes for a dish of gradually creeping mystery involving a centuries-old tribe of cave-dwelling savages and a fearful small town dedicated to keeping their existence a secret.
With his family looking for a change, Dr. Michael Cayle leaves behind the big city pace of New York for the quiet rural community of Ashborough, New Hampshire. The Cayles discover that the country life is more unusual than they imagined when they learn that the one-road town has no cell phone reception, no cable television service, and the sheriff enforces a strict curfew requiring all residents to remain indoors after 8pm. Why is it that movie characters always discover these things after they sign a lease? Seems like these are details you might want to be clued into before putting down new roots.
Continuing in the theme of being tinged with visions from other authors, Michael plays Louis Creed while new neighbor Phil channels Jud Crandall. To the woods they go where a blood-stained stone altar sets the atmosphere for Phil’s tale of feral wild men so feared and revered that to this day, townspeople make sacrifices in their name to be left in peace. As any sane mind would, Michael assumes Phil’s folktale is a load of rubbish and pays it little mind. But when his wife begins keeping secrets, the neighbors throw odd leers in his direction, and his house shows regular signs of unidentified visitors, Michael suspects that something evil really is afoot in Ashborough.
By design, the characters of “Deep in the Darkness” never break out of the story. That isn’t a negative, though. Instead of personalities overshadowing the narrative, the actors play their parts with the right amount of understatement to keep the tone level, even as it wobbles on a balance beam positioned over a pit of plausibility problems.
Dean Stockwell’s performance epitomizes the above concept. Rivaling the likes of an Eric Roberts or a Danny Trejo in how briefly he appears onscreen, Stockwell is nonetheless as welcome as ever playing a genial elder with a possibly hidden agenda. He manages to deliver simple dialogue with mannerisms and subtle inflections suggesting layers in ways that would be impossible for less experienced actors just blandly reciting lines.
Sean Patrick Thomas is well cast as the Cayle’s patriarch. The Cayles’ family dynamic is straightforward, yet not so sickeningly sweet as to be unbelievably annoying. It is also appreciated that the film never makes a big issue of the Cayles being an interracial family, except to briefly plant the assumption in Michael’s head that he is regarded as an outsider because of his race, which turns out to not be the case at all.
Rare is the movie that shows the passage of time without relying on a montage or “X Months Later…” text. “Deep in the Darkness” respects that film is a visual storytelling format and instead moves through its time changes with creative wipe transitions and shots of a ballooning pregnant belly to remind where the story is at in its timeline. It doubles as a nod to respecting that a viewer can follow along without requiring text in the face or dissolves set to music, too.
This confidence in the audience’s attention is sometimes too generous, however. How own townsperson fails in her seduction of Dr. Cayle is more than a little clunky in outlining her exact purpose and motive. A similar puzzlement comes over a late inning reveal of how residents are pacified with a cough-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to iced tea. This accompanies an additional revelation that “Deep in the Darkness” never goes out of its way to make that a clear detail in the first place.
It is strange how the movie alternately relies on the viewer having a keen eye and then doesn't want anyone looking too closely at all. The premise of “Deep in the Darkness” isn’t built on thin ice so much as outright warm water. This is a case where enjoyment of the film is related to how many questions you want to ask and whether or not you really require answers. Seemingly cut off from the world, how does Ashborough get groceries and supplies for one thing? And how is it that the Isolates flip between feral and omnipotent depending on what the scene calls for? Anyone unable to come up with 100 additional “wait a minute” and “what about” questions just isn’t paying attention.
There are enough holes to make “Deep in the Darkness” a bumpy ride. The film requires a forgiving audience to take the turns with shock-absorbing struts designed to cushion bumps by willfully disregarding that they exist. Choose to do so and there is enough to appreciate in the acting and in the idea to make for an entertaining spin in territory familiar, yet intriguing as a creepy mystery. “Deep in the Darkness” won’t have you reaching for a pen and paper to write mom a letter, but it is a better thriller from Chiller Films than the usual beast beneath the sea/trees/earth mill runner.
Review Score: 70