REVIEW: DARK WAS THE NIGHT (2014 / Released 2015)

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Distribution/Production Company(s): RLJE/Image Entertainment, Caliber Media, Sundial Pictures, Foggy Bottom Pictures, Molecule, Preferred Content
Directed by: Jack Heller
Written By: Tyler Hisel
Starring: Kevin Durand, Lukas Haas, Bianca Kajlich, Heath Freeman, Sabina Gadecki, Steve Agee, and Nick Damici
Running Time: 1 hr. 34 min.
Rating: Not Rated (As Far As I Could Tell)

SYNOPSIS:

Maiden Woods is a remote and quiet town of decent hard-working people, but something stirs in the dark woods surrounding this isolated community. After a logging company decimates an area of the forest, a rash of increasingly violent and unexplainable events transpires. Sheriff Paul Shields (Kevin Durand) and his deputy (Lukas Haas) struggle to confront their own personal demons while facing down a new breed of raw terror that is possibly older than humanity itself… And much, much hungrier.

When DARK WAS THE NIGHT began with images of trees being cut down and sawdust & wood shavings being spewed out of a chipper, I was worried we were going to have to sit through another “don’t mess with nature, or you’ll piss nature off!” kind of film. Thankfully we get out of this without yet another speech drafted by the PR folk over at Greenpeas. That being said, it’s the very action of logging (and the swift, bloody death of a logging crew and Steve Agee) that sets the beast on it’s rampage 90 miles to the south in the little, isolated, backwoods town of Maiden Woods.

We’re first introduced to Sheriff Paul Shields and his deputy Donny Saunders as they are investigating the strange disappearance of horse number 88 (they all have numbered bridles…don’t worry, like Chekhov’s gun, this comes into play later in the film). With other things on his mind, and what seems to be nothing more than a possible open gate (though the farmer denies it) and an escaped horse, Sheriff Shields leaves stating that he’ll look out for the missing horse 88.

We then see the Sheriff picking up his son from his wife who happens to be living at her mother’s house at the moment. There’s a brief scene between husband and wife as she tells Sheriff Shields that she’s been “seeing someone,” and “it’s helped.” Given the overall tone and second part of the statement, we’re lead to believe she means some kind of psychoanalyst.

As night falls, and now at home, the Sheriff’s son, Adam, is talking with his father over a french toast dinner, asking when mom can come home, when we see a shadow at the window and a look of fear cover Adam’s face as he says something’s outside. Running outside, the Sheriff finds nothing. Putting Adam to bed, he looks over to another bed in the room that’s well made and conspicuously empty.

The next morning, Deputy Saunders stops by and asks if Sheriff Shields has been outside. Outside, they find weird hoof prints going around the house, right by the windows of the house, as if whatever or whoever made the tracks was looking in. Deputy Saunders says it was the same at his apartment complex, stating that the tracks go all the way through town. They drive out to a road in the middle of town, following the tracks, and are confronted with worried and concerned townsfolk. They eventually follow the tracks out into the woods where they suddenly disappear.

Wild animals and domestic pets alike are disappearing and the mystery only deepens as the people of Maiden Woods find themselves recalling spooky old tales of something evil living “out in them woods.” There aren’t any animals, hoofed or otherwise, who walk on two legs for 3 miles other than a human being, or so Sheriff Shields thinks. But as mysterious claw marks show up and hunters begin to disappear, the ghostly stories of the past begin to seem more and more like a reality Sheriff Shields and Deputy Saunders (both already reeling from personal tragedies) have to face, leading up to a final showdown between beast and man they’ll never forget…if they survive.

It’s been a while since I’ve written a review, so excuse my brief lapse into leaning too heavily on just describing what happens in the film, but I thought it necessary to provide a glimpse into the horror before going on with my thoughts. Before going to far, however, I’d like to say that, despite some technical errors, I enjoyed DARK WAS THE NIGHT for the backwoods creature feature it is (which is one of the things that, obviously, attracted me to it in the first place). With that out of the way, let’s get down to the nitty gritty.

While we’ve seen strong leading characters with recent personal tragedies plaguing them work in horror films past, the idea can seem overdrawn and, perhaps, ineffective. Not so with Sheriff Shields in DARK WAS THE NIGHT. While Deputy Saunders’s recent tragedy is barely noted, Shields has one hell of a time dealing with the pressures of his office, and the added pressure of a nasty beast roaming the woods and streets of Maiden Woods. While I have to credit the screenwriter for the concept, it’s really Kevin Durand’s acting that realistically brings the brooding hero to life. Aside from the always delightful onscreen presence of Nick Damici (I’ve been a fan since Stakeland, and Late Phases really proved he could carry a picture), Durand was the main standout in the film…and he had to be as we see the story primarily through his eyes. The story, at times, could be sluggish and filled with cliched and barely there characters, but Durand, Damici, and Lukas Haas (to a degree) were believable and kept me watching (and caring) throughout.

This proved to be a boon in favor of the filmmakers as there were one or two technical problems with the film I took issue with. The first is that a great deal (perhaps half) of the film is BLUE! In years past, something like this could be blamed on poor color correction or the incorrect use of filters, but as a digitally shot (I’m almost certain) film that was handled digitally in post, this can only be because the filmmakers specifically wanted many of the daylight outdoors scenes to be BLUE!

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Why? Did they want to convey that perhaps the town was overcast? Maybe, but it wouldn’t have left everything blue, and you can see clear blue skies in the background in most cases. It may have been intentional, as some other scenes are cast in less distracting yellow hues, and there were fantastic uses of red gel lighting within the church, but the vast amount of scenes in the film that were blue are heavily distracting. Luckily, I still had a serviceable creature story with a few standout leads to push it along. This brings me to point two, and I’ll go ahead and put it in big letters for those who don’t want me to give anything away (something I’ve ardently strived to do in this review until now):

SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

The beast itself. Throughout the majority of the film, the director wisely kept the creature in the shadows, showing practical feet stomping here and there, and a shadow moving through, or just out of, the light. We’re even treated, at one point, to a blurry film and photo of something big and hairy knocking over, yet being captured on, a game camera. The problem I had with the beast, however, came at the end. I didn’t mind that sometimes we saw a kind of hooves (harkening, I believe, to the Devil’s Footprints phenomenon), and sometimes a kind of clawed and taloned foot walking menacingly about, but when we finally see the reveal of the creature, I was somewhat confused. Director Jack Heller said the film was to include a “never-before-seen monster” drawn from various pieces of American folklore. I get that, I really do, but the creature that was teased didn’t feel like the creature we eventually saw which was, in effect, a bipedal (mostly) CGI lizard-dino-man of sorts.

Prior in the film, we’re even witness to an online search by Sheriff Shields for something with three cloven hooves; a search that brings up a result for the “windiga,” which I believe was supposed to be a version of the Algonquian Wendigo legend regarding an evil spirit or cannibal. Such legends say that the Wendigo takes on many shapes and forms, pulling from the various species of the forest and spirit realm. Some say that a man becomes the Wendigo when he consumes the flesh of another human being. Nowhere does it say the beast is a lizard man. Perhaps Heller was thinking of the Lizard Man of Scape Ore Swamp near Bishopville, SC. This was something I heard about growing up in the little town of Mt. Pleasant, NC a few hours away, and it’s what I thought about when I saw the creature we were presented with onscreen. Perhaps this strange realization of the beast came from a prior conversation in the film where Shields and Saunders are talking about something, perhaps, evolving perfectly to live out of sight of mankind, something that’s been in the woods since before mankind was even around. Ok, I get that, sure, but that doesn’t change what we’ve seen already, a beast that was anything BUT a CGI lizard man.

It may be a small thing to bitch about, given the decent story overall, but between that and a film that’s blue half the time, it began to stick in my craw. Upon a second viewing, those two issues alone nearly drove me to discount the rest of the film altogether. That, however, would be a mistake. Sure, there were some technical issues and what seemed like some kind of confusion on just exactly what kind of monster they wanted to give us, but the overall story involved characters that, while they could’ve been a bit more realized, you could care about to some degree. While I don’t think DARK WAS THE NIGHT is going to go down as a classic in the backwoods creature feature sub-sub-genre, it wasn’t half bad. So despite my personal little aggravations, I’d say check this one out in theaters or on demand (currently), or when it comes to dvd sometime in late August!

2.5 out of 5 skulls!

2 and 1/2 skulls

Dark Was The Night Poster

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