Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Dark Was The Night

Dark Was The Night (2015)
Dir. Jack Heller
Written by Tyler Hisel
Starring Kevin Durand, Lukas Haas, Bianca Kajlich

DARK WAS THE NIGHT opens well. I like the font of the title, and I like that little drawing of the scary hand thing. Good hustle, right out of the gate. Unfortunately that is literally the last moment in the entire runtime which features anything commendable on-screen. I kinda hate to really lay into a little indie production, which I’m sure was motivated by genuinely desire to make a good movie. But I gotta call ‘em like I see ‘em, and this is, simply, a movie with nothing, nothing whatsoever, to recommend it.

It’s not for lack of ambition. In fact, you would never guess it from the finished film, but the script, by Tyler Hisel (2013’s lions-eat-white-people found-footage debacle SAFARI) was apparently included on that prestigious Hollywood Blacklist of highly-respected but unproduced screenplays back in 2009. That makes it sound pretty impressive until you remember that the same year, DUE DATE, RED RIDING HOOD, THE WATCH, and THE VATICAN TAPES were also on that list. But fair’s fair, I can see why someone could read this script and imagine a good movie. It’s an ambitious horror script, especially for a monster movie, because it focuses its attention much more on the painful personal lives of its protagonists than it does on monster attacks. In fact the monster doesn’t even show up til the movie’s final minutes; most of the runtime, it’s all about that subtle, implied horror of something unknown, something you can’t see. To wit: the people of winter-bound Maiden Woods, NY* are seeing signs that something is amiss. Animals acting strangely, mysterious tracks appearing around town, claw marks on some old dude’s barn. Meanwhile, sheriff Paul Shields (Kevin Durand, LEGION, COSMOPOLIS) is trying to keep the citizens calm while dealing with his own grief and guilt over the loss of his son and subsequent separation from his wife (Bianca Kajlich, HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION, but don’t hold that against her).

This could all be in service of a tense, unsettling tale of psychological pain with flourishes of horror, but an emphasis on icy, existential dread. Something in the vein of THE BABADOOK, or CURE. It could have been. But it isn’t. The script has that ambition, but its handling of this scenario is as rote as it’s possible to conceive of, and despite its emphasis on drama, the characters are all desperately one-note regurgitations of threadbare cliches. For fuck’s sake, every movie cop has a photo of a dead relative in his wallet that he sadly looks at while feeling guilty. Stretching a hacky genre staple into a feature-length movie is a dangerous enough proposition in itself, and Hisel does nothing whatsoever to expand on the basic premise or tease any meaning from it. It’s just the normal scene of an unshaven movie cop, sitting on his bed staring intensely into the middle distance feeling guilty and hoping for redemption... except instead of one scene it’s 50 minutes of 90 minute movie. Nothing interesting comes of it, he’s just kinda glum and mopey for a long time and eventually there’s a monster.

Who put Dave Matthews in a horror movie?

Even so, I think you could make a decent movie out of this premise with direction strong enough to overcome the thin script. Horror doesn’t require elaborate writing so much as a robust command of cinema, and I think the intention here is to be a bleak, stripped-down mood piece. With a masterful control of atmosphere, the gloomy characters might at least seem appropriate, if not independently interesting. That’s what’s being attempted, I think: Director Jack Heller (the little-seen thriller ENTER NOWHERE, executive producer of BAD MILO!) is aiming for the understated, icy dread of a DON’T LOOK NOW or HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, where the mundane is made ominous through a careful use of cinematography, editing, and music.** An ambitious goal, to be sure, but unfortunately the movie just plain does not have the talent to back it up. Heller simply lacks the chops it takes to use the power of cinema to evoke the unease a movie like this needs to take flight. The filmmaking is as pedestrian as movies come, and occasionally outright amateurish. There’s very little actual horror in the script -- it’s totally reliant on the direction to create an eerie atmosphere in which to lay out its gloomy personal drama-- so when the direction stumbles, then, there’s nothing to fall back on. Nothing. It becomes a sad-sack, repetitive low-budget mumblecore misery porn which turns into a cheesy monster movie in the final 5 minutes.

It’s a shame, in a way, because of course you want a horror movie like this to succeed. I’m sure Heller was trying to do a good job here, trying to make something serious and mature, something that unsettled. But there’s a reason most horror films don’t try for that. If you make a tits-and-bloodsplatter gimmick slasher movie and fail to use the full power of cinema to provoke unease deep in the soul, that’s OK, you still got tits, bloodsplatter, and gimmicky slashing. If you make a quiet, intimate film about guilt and fail to use the full power of cinema to provoke unease deep in the soul, you got nothing. And almost immediately, the seams start to show.

See, the times when there were only one set of footprints, those times the monster was carrying you.

I was willing to grant it a little leeway at first; Durand’s working pretty hard as the lead, even if he doesn’t have anything especially interesting to work with. Lukas Haas (MARS ATTACKS) has even less to do as his sidekick, another burned-out cop with a tragic backstory which is equally insipid and unimportant, but he’s trying hard too. The cinematography by Ryan Samul is ugly and drab --a shame since he’s been doing such great work with Jim Mickle recently, especially the handsomely lensed COLD IN JULY-- but that’s mostly explained by the debilitating flatness of the color-corrected images and the cheesey editing (one can’t help but wonder if the producers ruined some decent shots in post, as they did to poor Gabriel Kosuth on DYING OF THE LIGHT and god knows how many other movies over the last decade). Mostly it’s not actively bad, it’s just monotonous and derivative. You can deal with that for a while -- you know, low budget movie, can’t expect everything to be money shots. They spend a lot of time teasing that something cool will come along, you think, maybe they’re just building up to something awesome that will make the long wait totally worth it. But as minute after desolate minute ticks by, it becomes increasingly obvious that nothing is going to be able to save a movie this empty.

Eventually, the tipping point comes and you just can’t help but start to feel insulted by just how little effort is being made to keep you entertained. And gradually you start to see what you first took for an attempt at low-key mood building as simple laziness. Was this a legitimate failed effort to make a chilly, tense suspense piece, or just an excuse to grind out low-effort genre content for netflix so they can run up their numbers without paying for a real movie? I can’t answer that question, but if it looks like a sub-SyFy-Channel hack job, plays like a sub-SyFy-Channel hack job, and sucks like a sub-SyFy-Channel hack job…well, maybe it is exactly what it looks like. I can’t guess at the filmmakers’ intentions, but I can give you the standard checklist for crappy low-budget SyFy-channel wannabe bullshit: Ugly, desaturated monochromatic look. Check. B-list actors (at least one of them little-seen since the 90’s) spend the whole movie mumbling through one-note non-characters. Check. Monster is A) American Indian legend B) the result of man’s trespass on nature, or in this case C) both. Check. Check. Check. Monster is hidden in shadows and by shaky cam, but occasionally runs blurrily right in front of the camera’s field of vision accompanied by a loud musical sting. Check. Ridiculously low bodycount and no gore. Check. Monster finally appears in the last 5 minutes, looks like shit, and is brought to life by crappy CG. Check. More producers, executive producers, and co-producers than principal cast. Check. Cop with a tragic past? Climax in a church? That scene where something scary blocks the light underneath the bedroom door? Hunters in the woods get eaten by unseen force? Sudden realization once you get a good look at the thing that there’s no possible way it could have done all the spooky shit it was doing before we could see it? One check after another.

That last one is a personal pet peeve of mine, and I’d like to take a minute to address it here, if I may. Don’t you just hate it when the monster or killer or whatever is deliberately obscured and it’s doing all sorts of crazy shit, circling around hunters invisibly too fast for them to see, grabbing someone from inside a car, sticking its victims in the tops of tree… and then when you actually see it it’s a big lumbering lizard which can’t even manage to kill two dorks in an empty room? I mean, this thing would obviously not even fit in a car, much less have the strategic focus (or even desire) to pull off a maneuver like that. I officially call bullshit on this lazy practice. If you’re gonna show your monster doing impossible things when I can’t see it, you better be able to convince me it could feasibly do those things when the big reveal comes. If you have to make it totally change up it’s MO at the end because doing the same stuff would seem ludicrous once we can actually take a gander, congratulations, you’re the real monster here. (This one is especially egregious because they make a big deal about the mysterious tracks it leaves, which are of a distinct “three-cloven hoof.” Guess, what, when you actually see the foot, it’s not a fucking hoof, it’s just a regular dinosaur foot like you’d expect these big lizard dudes to have. Look, if you guys can’t be bothered to even remember the details of your own stupid monster movie, how can you expect us to take it seriously?)

Anyway, just being clichéd and cheap and lazy doesn’t automatically make it bad -- I’ve enjoyed movies way dumber and more incompetent, and recently. But come on, you gotta give us something. This offers only the clichéd filler parts of a movie, none of the actual genre goods. It’s not just an unimaginative B-movie, it’s an unimaginative B-movie with all the fun parts taken out! The only feature that distinguishes it from a million other instantly forgotten movies exactly like it is its ridiculously dour tone and relentless focus on its standard sad cop routine, which serves to make it unusually uneventful, but not in an especially memorable way. Mostly it’s just bland and generic, and, appropriately, even features a bland and generic off-brand Native American legend. Durand searches for the generic off-brand mythic Indian “Windiga” using the generic off-brand search engine “Searchitnow.com” to go to the famous online encyclopedia “Encypdeia.org.” Pfft! I know a genuine Panaphonics when I see one! And look, there's Magnetbox and Sorny! The monster looks pretty dumb when we see it, but at least it’s a dumb CG monster. That’s something. There’s dignity in that. Spending 80 minutes looking furtively at trees for what turns out to be a knockoff Spider-Man villain is just unacceptable. And to do it with such a self-serious aversion to even the vaguest hint of fun is downright sadism. To really twist the knife, the agreeably moronic twist ending even offers a hint that these guys were perfectly capable of supplying some dumb entertainment all along, had they deigned to do so. As it stands, though, the title font and the last shot are the solitary glimmers of actual enjoyment in the whole thing, and the end only because it’s so corny and ridiculous. Dark was the night, indeed.

*originally Laytonsville, Maryland, according to the synopsis of the script from 2009, needling one to ponder what else had been changed since then.

**I was somewhat stunned when I saw a handful of good reviews of this thing, including from longtime friend of the site and film criticism’s second greatest troll Fred Topel (sorry Fred, as long as Armond White remains alive you’ll never quite reach the top of your game). All the positive reviews cited the film’s restraint and focus on drama as a selling point, but while I can understand applauding a film’s ambition in this regard, I defy anyone to try and claim the actual substance of the movie succeeds in generating either the tension or the drama it aspires to, or either of those things, at all. The most I can bring myself to concede is that Durand actually gives a pretty good performance, but unfortunately it’s in service of the most ridiculously trite movie cop cliche of all time. Yes, it’s a slightly atypical horror movie (although not that atypical, especially given the renaissance in the last few years of vastly superior microbudget horror-dramas like RESOLUTION and ABSENTIA) but surely just atypical isn’t the same as actually good? I can’t see how any sane person could claim the approach here actually pays off in any meaningful way, especially since the drama we spend so much time pondering is so completely and utterly divorced from the actual horror elements. Things like THE BABADOOK or THE CANAL or IT FOLLOWS (all of which are vastly more eventful than DARK WAS THE NIGHT, despite their reputation as restrained psycho-horror) all expertly weave the psychological aspects into the structure of their internal horror mechanics; DARK WAS THE NIGHT feels like a dull drama which is superficially grafted to a routine monster movie; the two impulses never play off each other thematically.

Oh I should mention: Nick Damici (STAKE LAND) appears here, hopefully adding to his momentum as a horror staple independent from his work with Jim Mickle. He's just as ill-served as everyone is by this dumb screenplay, but hey, it's not like Lance Henricksen hasn't been in a few duds too. You gotta grind 'em out to become an icon, and I think Damici has what it takes.

Play it Again, Samhain

  • TAGLINE: Evil's Roots Run Deep. I don't know what that means.
  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: No, although supposedly in part inspired by the curious "Devils Footprints" incident in 1855, with the vaguest suggestion of the Native American "Wendigo"
  • SEQUEL: None
  • REMAKE: None
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: None, although Lukas Haas was kinda a big deal once upon a time, wasn't he?
  • BOOBIES: None
  • MULLETS: None
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: I think there's a served arm at the very beginning, in a scene which looks suspiciously tacked on, possibly by producers who watched the final cut and realized that absolutely nothing happens in the movie until the final 10 minutes.
  • MONSTER: Yes, some sort of lizard man.
  • THE UNDEAD: None
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: No.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: High, but currently on netflix streaming.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Your title font should not be the best thing in your horror movie.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Night was reasonably dark, I guess. But then again, what else would it be? The title probably comes from the Blind Willie Johnson slide-blues standard Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground, but I don't know what that has to do with anything in the movie.

1 comment:

  1. ahahaha they hide the monster for the entire movie, then went and flat out showed it on the poster? awesome.