Something's in the forest around Maiden Woods, and it's up to the grief-stricken sheriff and his former big city deputy to figure out what. Shot through an icy blue lens and set in a small town on the verge of a snowstorm, DARK WAS THE NIGHT (2014) is as much a character study as it is a creature feature and is all the better for it.
Sheriff Paul Shields (Kevin Durand from Vikings, Real Steel, a whole ton of stuff) blames himself for the death of his young son, even though every single other person in town (including his estranged wife and other son) know it was a terrible accident. I've read other reviews that point out Durand carries the whole film on his shoulders with his performance, and I'm inclined to agree; though I'd say he wears it on his face more than anything. He spends the entire film looking knackered and on the verge of tears, yet holds it back with no small effort so he can concentrate on protecting his town...even though this is also something he doesn't, privately, feel equipped to do.
A dark shape stalks around the outside of his home at night, startling his son and leaving weird hoof-like prints that stretch from the woods all the way through town. Once the townsfolk wake up to these, they're suitably unnerved and straight away, the film's blanketed in a sense of unease as subtle as the gently falling snow. At first, the rational response is someone's taking a creepy prank too far, but once evidence starts piling up involving claw marks and dead bodies, Paul and his deputy (played by Lukas Haas, Touch) start to suspect old monster stories told by good-natured barman Earl (the always reliable Nick Damici, Stakeland) might have some basis in fact.
DARK WAS THE NIGHT may have a borderline generic title, and you could argue the plot itself follows familiar beats, but this doesn't stop it from being an atmospheric, occasionally tense film. Director Jack Heller (a producer on Bad Milo and The Scribbler) shows he knows how to handle suspense and the monster by giving us glimpses of it in the background and as it darts behind trees/into the surrounding darkness. I even got one really good, genuine jump scare out of the film that has everything to do with careful framing and delayed expectation, rather than a blast of loud music. Writer Tyler Hisel papers over any b-movie familiarity with strong characters and the clever decision to offer clues as to the creature's origin rather than a concrete reason.
The only two places the film stumbles are when Paul's wife talks about her son's death, and when we finally get a good look at the monster. Regards the wife's conversation, although it's not a deal-breaker, it does feel heavyhanded in a film that shows otherwise commendable restraint. The monster might elicit more than a groan, though. I like the design a lot (though I can't really picture it surviving in the freezing temperatures), I'm just not keen on the CG fx as it breaks the immersion (mainly through slightly wonky animation). It's a shame, too, because up until the end, the most we see of the monster is delivered through shadow-drenched practical effects, like this:
I won't reveal the creature here as that'd spoil half the fun of this film, but I do think it's pretty unique – in look, if not form. There're some nice gore fx that serve the story and you really get a sense that this monster is powerful, lithe and smart; in other words, a worthy enemy. For the human characters: aside from the Sheriff, Deputy Donny also gets just enough backstory to flesh out a good-natured personality that shows hints of a recent, troubled past. There's a lot to like about DARK WAS THE NIGHT, and I think it's a real testament to it that I already feel like watching it again. I'm sure I could have come up with a far snappier conclusion, but sometimes a perfectly solid sentiment is just as good, if not better. A bit like this film, really. Oooooh there we go.
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