“You really think there’s a monster in the woods?”
It’s always refreshing when a modern horror film uses emotional themes, and good character work to wrap around all the terror. Too often, horror films descend into mindless excuses to slaughter young people in the least-bloody, most-watered-down PG-13 manner possible. So give points to Dark Was the Night for using a story about grief and doubt to frame its narrative about a monster coming out of the woods.
Based in part on the true story the infamous “Devil’s Footprints” — an incident that happened in England in the late 1800s, where mysterious hoof-prints appeared overnight in the snow covering a total distance of some 40 to 100 miles; hoof-prints that were attributed to Satan — Dark Was the Night is set in a very small town where Sheriff Paul Shields (Kevin Durand) lives in a perpetual state of grief. Having recently lost his youngest son after a tragic accident, Paul feels he’s too blame and as a result exiles himself from his wife Susan (Bianca Kajlich) and remaining son Adam (Ethan Khusidman). As if things weren’t bad enough for Paul, one morning the town wakes up and discovers spooky hoof-prints that seem to be burned into the ground. The tracks go through the entire town, end in the woods, and set the whole town into a panic. Paul thinks it’s the work of pranksters at first, but when people start ending up dead, he fears that there might be some wild, previously undiscovered animal out in the woods. Or worse.
Dark Was the Night director Jack Heller is able to squeeze a lot of tension out of so little resources. It’s clear how small a budget the film had, and at times the pointless blue filter that Heller throws over every scene starts to make things feel a lot cheaper than they need to be. Yet Dark Was the Night is able to build a palpable sense of dread. Heller adheres to the same rules that Steven Spielberg famously set with Jaws: the less you see of the monster, the scarier it is. So it’s a shame that Dark Was the Night then descends into a goofy monster-movie finale that finds Paul and his deputy Donny (Lukas Haas, leaning a bit too heavily on a Noo Yawk accent, as his character is supposed to be a former big city cop come to a small town), batting the monster revealed in full, hokey-looking glory. But up until this climax, Dark Was the Night‘s monster really is quite creepy, as it stalks around in the shadows and we only get glimpses of its hoofed feet.
Where Dark Was the Night really excels though is in character work. Before being produced, Tyler Hisel’s script was on the famous Hollywood Blacklist (a list of the best un-produced screenplays), and its easy to see why. Hisel’s script gives every character, no matter how minor, their own little unique character traits. As a result, he succeeds in creating fairly believable characters who really do feel like a community of close, scared people. As the grief-stricken lead, Durand is quite good at conveying an overall emotional weariness — he looks like he hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in years.
The character moments are strong enough that it’s tempting to call Dark Was the Night a total success, but that’s hard to do when we keep coming back to its cornball climax. As a result, the finished project has a disjointed, tampered-with quality. Almost as if some producer took a look at a rough cut of the film, complained that there were too many quiet scenes, and insisted on an ending that would be more suited for mega-disaster horror film Van Helsing than this. Still, the committed cast and Jack Heller’s assured handling of the steadily increasing terror is commendable. Here’s hoping Heller keeps directing horror films, but sticks the landing next time.