On a winter morning that should be like any other, the residents of quiet, isolated Maiden Woods awake to find three-pronged hoof-pints traversing their town. Sheriff Paul Shields (Kevin Durand) and his new deputy, Donny Saunders (Lukas Haas), track the mysterious, unnatural markings, which disappear as if into nothing in the middle of the forest that surrounds the sleepy logging town. When the local wildlife starts to flee en masse, the residents begin loudly speculating that they’re about to witness the return of a demon that hunted in the trees three decades earlier. Shield tries to quell the rumors and maintain calm, but the closer he gets to determining what’s lurking through town, the less convinced he becomes that it’s of this plane.
For years, the imposing Kevin Durand has played supporting roles in such films as “Robin Hood,” “Cosmopolis,” and “Fruitvale Station.” More recently, small screen viewers might recognize him from “Vikings” and/or “The Strain.” Durand’s always an undeniable presence — if for his hulking size alone — and it’s great to see the actor nab a leading role in a feature for a change. Unfortunately, “Dark Was the Night” is not likely to be the vehicle that cements him as a leading man from this point forward.
Durand does what he can with the material, but the film needs more fixes than a strong cast alone can provide. For starters, the screenplay sets up a lot of information that it never capitalizes on, which results in an incomplete feeling, and the sense that perhaps director Jack Heller left things on the cutting room floor that writer Tyler Hisel intended us to see played out. The biggest, most glaring example is Shields’ backstory. Hisel and Heller burden him with an unnecessarily heavy cross to bear — especially for a run-of-the-mill horror movie. His son died less than a year ago. Well, one of his sons; he has a surviving elementary school-aged boy. The death (an accidental drowning in a pool) split Shields and his wife’s marriage apart; they’re trying to work it out, but she currently lives at her mother’s place, and they share custody of the surviving child. The late son’s tragic demise has nothing to do with the ongoing mystery/torment the town faces, nor does it truly inform Shields’ character any more deeply. Sure, he’s protective of his surviving son, but when a monster comes a knocking, any parent would be. His schism with his wife is fairly hackneyed — not bad, not good, just blasé — and it puts them on a predictable and familiar trajectory. At the beginning of the film, we already know they’ll reunite by the end.
The actual thrust of the film, the mysterious events occurring about the town, works to a degree. Heller relies on sound, shadows, and low lighting to convey the creepiness of the cryptic creatures, and his techniques pay off in the beginning. By about the third encounter, though, it’s hard not to want more. Shields perpetually responds to 911 calls in the pitch black, and you’d imagine a police officer in a remote, wooded town would think to bring a flashlight with him on night patrols, yet Shields rarely ever does. Granted, it’s much easier for things to go bump in the night when the night is all encompassing, but the result is a frustrating viewing experience plagued by squinting at the screen, trying to make out something, anything. Hisel and Heller try to build on the suspicion by tacking on a weak backstory to Deputy Saunders, as well. He’s new to Maiden Woods, a transplant from New York City who left the force there after getting shot on the job. Some residents hint that he has something to do with the footprints, given his status as an outsider, but just as with the death of Shields’ son, it’s an incomplete idea. Rather than raise doubts about Saunders, all it does is muddy the plot.
At the end of the day, “Dark was the Night” had the potential to engender scares, but the movie suffers from trying too hard. It is the second feature for both the Hisel and Heller, so maybe we should chalk up its stumbles to two filmmakers still establishing their voices and ironing out their processes. It’s not a bad horror flick, mind you, but it’s far from standing out from the throng of frighteners hitting theaters and VOD this year. [C+]