Screamfest 2014 Review: ‘Dark Was the Night’
Dark Was the Night is a superb emotional drama about a family coping with a loss. It is an exquisite creature feature too, but I would have totally just watched the family drama.
In Maiden Woods, Sheriff Paul Shields (Kevin Durand) is separated from his wife Susan (Bianca Kajlich) because of a tragedy in their family. He also investigates some animal attacks that he’s sure is a normal forest dweller, or even a prank, but the town insists is something bigger. Since this movie premiered at Screamfest, you can safely assume Dark Was the Night isn’t just a metaphor for the Shields’ emotional turmoil.
Director Jack Heller, with a Blacklist script Tyler Hisel, follows the Jaws rule of “don’t show the creature” to maximum effect. I think he technically held out even longer than Spielberg, but I’ll have to verify that with a time coded DVD. We see the markings the creature leaves in his wake, and some creature point of view with good, subtle buildup. We see his big hooves stepping around, glimpses in muzzle flashes, and the final siege is set to a magnificent sound design that says more than any images would.
The jump scares are real because Heller doesn’t even use misdirect. It’s no direct at all, and then boom! That’s how you get around savvy audiences who know the technique by now. Just throw out the technique and hit us hard! That, in itself, is technique of course.
Durand is an absolutely compelling leading man, and what makes the Shieldses so riveting is that they talk intelligently about their psychological issues. This is how mature people discuss their problems. They talk to their son, and like real parents they laugh when a teacher overreacts to an innocuous incident. Then Susan fiercely defends her son when the teacher oversteps into their personal life. Really, the whole town oversteps, trying to “help” Paul find peace, but really imposing their beliefs on him. This is so poignant. People trying to help you are so much harder to deal with than people trying to hurt you, because the “helpers” are relentless.
Paul keeps a cool head with the tense townies who want to get riled up. Of course, the townies are right in this case but in real life Paul would be right, and that makes him the right man to handle the creature ultimately. He leads a smart investigation too, with hints of an environmental message, although he uses a brand new generic movie search engine called SearchItNow. I guess not even Bing would license their graphics for an indie movie. Instead of Wikipedia, they also have Encypdeia.org, typo included.
Dark Was the Night absolutely deserves to be seen on the big screen, so I hope an ambitious distributor is listening. It’s next screening is at Film Society of Lincoln Center in November 1st. Of course, if it ultimately ends up on VOD or Blu-ray, as many respectable movies do, it will be just as poignant and effective. I have high hopes for Dark Was the Night though. This could be the next horror franchise. Let’s have other towns call Paul Shields when this thing attacks them!