Sometimes, only a good old-fashioned monster flick will scratch that horror itch; don’t you guys agree? Admit it: a lot of you out there, just like yours truly, will spend a couple hours on the occasional Saturday afternoon vegged out watching some low-end, badly-CGI’ed SyFy flick involving gigantic sea creatures, sharks that swim in the sand, or spiders crawling out of the icy snow — not because they’re necessarily good films, but because they fulfill that guilty pleasure of the “creature feature” craving that I think most of us horror-types are genetically encoded with. Thanks to films like Creature From The Black Lagoon, Gorgo, King Kong, etc…going all the way back to the exaggerated caveman tales of horrific, colossal creatures spread by word of mouth, I believe most of us inclined toward horror enjoy a good monster every once in a while. Of course, that’s the real issue, isn’t it? A good monster movie…for every quality creature flick like an Alien or a Jeepers Creepers, there are two dozen lower-rent versions like Carnivore or Q: The Winged Serpent. Now I’m not saying that these latter flicks don’t have their merits (I actually enjoy catching Q from time to time…hey, don’t look at me like that!), but for a well-written, well-acted, and story-driven film to actually have some fantastic beast worked into the mix is a fairly rare treat.
I came to Jack Heller’s recent outing Dark Was The Night with what you can read on the DVD case; a small town, a sheriff on the edge, an ancient evil awakened…not a terrible way to start a flick. 🙂
A group of loggers meets an untimely (and gruesome) end at the claws of something unseen; the only thing we can be relatively sure of is that it’s big, fast, and pretty pissed off. Meanwhile, in the small town of Maiden Woods, not far from the logging operation, a horse rancher is missing some animals. Though deeply troubled over the recent death of his youngest son, local sheriff Paul Shields and his transplanted from the Big Apple deputy Donny nonetheless investigate, but feel that the rancher probably lost the horse on his own. However, that next morning, a set of large, unidentifiable (and most creepily, bipedal) footprints are found all over the town; there’s scarcely an inch of ground that hasn’t been tread by whatever left the tracks, and although the first thought is of a clever prankster, most of the citizens aren’t buying that anyone would be that dedicated. The locals even talk of ancient Native American spirits that they feel might still inhabit the forests, reaching out to the local populace in vengeance. Wrestling with his own demons, Shields is reluctant to give any thought to such superstitious beliefs…but in the days that come events continue to transpire that defy logical explanation, and as a huge blizzard moves into the area he’s forced to confront a creature whose legend is older than the recorded history of this country. The question is, can the emotionally-damaged lawman find the inner strength to face down a horrifying and hungry myth-made-real?
Out of the gate, Heller’s cinematographic choices set the tone for the entire story (of course, all due credit to cinematographer Ryan Samul behind the camera as well); the desaturated grays of the snow-covered landscape reflect both the dark nature of the unseen menace and the troubled soul of Sheriff Shields. Also, it serves to accentuate the isolation of the locale and the small town mentality of the locals. The sheriff tries several times to get outside help, but feeding the underlying premise of that same isolation, such help is usually inadequate or altogether unavailable. This brings us to the bottom-line theme of the film; redemption. In Shields, we have a broken hero, a man we can relate to as his own self-loathing consumes him. He is also one we can cheer for as he pushes through his own grief and turmoil to rise up to do what must be done all on his own; it’s a classic motif done well in this case. The acting throughout the film was far above what one typically expects for such a film, giving the audience characters that they can really invest in. In particular, Kevin Durand’s portrayal of Shields is the lynchpin of it all; he sells the tortured, anguished character in spades, without ever breaking that thin wall into overacting. Lukas Haas as the out-of-his-element deputy and Binaca Kajlich as Shield’s estranged but sympathetic wife provide excellent support, although I found myself wishing we’d gotten a little more of Haas’ “fish out of water” performance as the former big-city cop in a small town. Familiar horror-film veteran Nick Damici lends a solid hand with his role as the wise and knowledgeable local bartender, and the rest of the cast fits right into the small town mode without being caricatures.
We don’t see the “creature” of this creature feature very much throughout the first two reels, and that serves it’s purpose well; a lot of tension is generated by the aftermath of broken bodies, shadowy glimpses, and sinister footprints. Unfortunately, as is always the case, sooner or later the monster has to jump out of the box, and when it does, it’s a CGI creature that, while not horrible, is still an obvious CGI creature. That said, Heller kept visual exposure to a minimum, and mostly in the dark, so it’s forgivable. The film isn’t derailed, although the last act does suffer somewhat once the mystery is gone and confrontation ensues. There is some excitement to be found during that last ten-to-fifteen minutes of frantic cat-and-mouse with the creature, but it’s not up to the same level of sinister that the rest of the film holds.
I enjoyed the film, peeps. I’m a sucker for a good monster flick, even if it’s one o’ those SyFy flicks that are barely more than cartoons…however, I’m not in any way saying that Dark Was The Night should be lumped into that category; on the contrary, the intricate and well-written story, skilled camera work, and quality acting that I’ve mentioned elevates this film head and shoulders above the standard fare.
Now, there is one caveat: As much as I hate to spoil anything, I have to say I was very disappointed in the final scene. It just was not in any way in keeping with the overall feel of the rest of the film, and seemed very tacked-on; it really cheapened the impact of what I felt was an otherwise entertaining and enjoyable movie. I like to think studio pressure probably forced Heller to include this ill-conceived, totally unnecessary final bit. Do yourself a favor; when you see characters walking out of a certain building right there at the end, hit STOP. You’ll thank me for it.
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