Did you hear that? It sounded like something mundane…but ominous. You want to check under your bed and in your closet. But what if that strange late night noise isn’t something ordinary? What if it is the insidious sound of an indescribable…other? Something dark?
Haunted house films and ghost stories have made killings on this simple nighttime anxiety. As they should. The most horrifying thing is the unexplainable and the sense of existential dread that dwells somewhere in your deepest imaginings. It’s also what this weekend’s new horror release, Dark Skies, wants to get a piece of.
Produced by Jason Blum, Dark Skies follows in the resurgent ghost story formula that has made its producer a scarily happy man. Ever since the runaway success of 2009’s Paranormal Activity, we have seen a return of films about what goes bump in the night. More akin to the also Blum produced Insidious (2011) and Sinister (2012), Dark Skies mostly leaves the “found footage” shtick behind for a traditional tale of parental angst. Like those films, we are introduced to a happy, suburban family whose patiently developed existences are rocked and ruined by the introduction of that something other. Except this time, it’s truly otherworldly.
I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that what threatens the residential lives of Dark Skies’ Barrett family is more science fiction than supernatural. Yet, even with this title, the trailer tends to downplay the alien of it all. But rest assured, the film opens on the none-too-subtle Arthur C. Clarke quote, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Cue the crashing sound effect. Dark Skies sets up pretty quickly that this story is the iron tight open-and-shut proof that Agent Mulder desperately pursued for seven seasons. And no, they have not come in peace.
Daniel and Lacy Barrett (Josh Hamilton and Keri Russell) are coming out of a rough patch. The recession has hit Daniel hard as he continues to look for work after being laid off. Lacy, as the sole breadwinner, is the kind of straight shooting, honest woman who will tell her single mother real estate client that she can do better than the house Lacy’s supposed to sell, even though her family is 90 days behind on their own mortgage. They’ve seen better days, but good fortune has to be just around the corner.
Their sons are teenagers Jesse Barrett (Dakota Goyo) and Sam Barrett (Kadan Rockett). The elder is just now learning how to talk to girls and ignore his porn-watching nimrod buddy Kevin (LJ Benet). The younger is the kind of impressionable kid who obsesses over myths about “the Sandman” and other sci-fi nightmares his big bro likes to put in his head. But one night, strange things start happening. Someone is repeatedly breaking into the house and committing minor pranks like stealing lettuce or rearranging the kitchen in a way that might appeal to John Nash. The local cops are no help and insist that it’s one of their kids. At first, the financially drained parents believe that Sam is indeed responsible. He keeps talking about how “the Sandman” is doing these things and threatening him to keep his mouth shut. Lacy wants to take him to a psychiatrist, but Daniel cannot even pay the cable bill. However, they quickly realize something more is going on when three separate flocks of birds crash to their deaths into the home’s walls. Then there are the time-lapses that Lacy is experiencing and the strange marks on both sons’ bodies. A dark cloud is gathering over the Barrett household and if Lacy and Daniel don’t act soon, it may be too late to stop…something.
I just want to come out and say that I love old school scary movies. I think the horror in our own heads is far more haunting than all the gore and dismembered nudity in Hollywood. I even recall The Shining unsettling me far more as a kid than any detour to Crystal Lake with big ol’ silly Jason. So, I can appreciate that this recent wave of horror has returned to the primordial fear of what you don’t see over the cheapness of graphic detail. However, I’ve never been that interested in aliens one way or another. I think it’s far more than peculiar head shapes that hurt Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And I honestly did not mind the aliens’ inclusion, along with the kitchen sink, into the second season of American Horror Story. But fears of little green men have never been on this writer’s scare-o-meter.
With that said, Dark Skies does little to alter my pulse, much less my opinion. As a film, it tries mightily to invest us into Lacy and the family’s struggles. Hamilton and Russell earnestly convey the troubles of many a household in the last several years. You can understand his reluctance to even keep the lights on, much less believe that there are really bright ones out there watching them. While Russell’s Lacy provides a tough-as-nails maternal grit that again proves she is one of the more underrated actresses working right now. When she realizes someone is trying to do more than phone her home, those spacemen better look out. Still, as soon as their concerns go from the economic to the extra-terrestrial, the movie stumbles into conventions that don’t terrify so much as amuse.
Chances are, if you’ve seen any of the box office friendly spine-tinglers of late, you can guess how this story is going to play out. Nobody will believe the Barretts that something sinister has come to Maple Street. Even though every sensor in the house’s security alarm is breached in a “freak accident” within 24 hours of hundreds of birds committing suicide by flying into the home, the only local cop (Jason Stanburg) is a regular Officer Barbrady. It has to be one of the kids who are doing it all. Of course when both sons start appearing with bruises on their bodies, it becomes about the neighborhood versus the weird family. Daniel’s plight as an emasculated male who’s being judged by friends to be an abusive creep is an interesting arc, but not particularly frightening.
Eventually, they start trying to tackle the problem head-on. First, Daniel puts a camera in every room. Yep, it appears that Daniel too has seen Paranormal Activity. Except, the darn video goes black during the crucial hours of 2 and 3am! What are the odds? Next, Lacy bites her lip as she scrounges up alien conspiracies after an afternoon of intensive Googling. In what is probably the movie’s best rehash, JK Simmons shows up for 10 minutes to devour every frame of the scene. His enjoyable appearance as Edwin Pollard, an alien survivor and universe-weary expert, lights up the film even if all he is doing is confirming for the characters what the audience already knows. He chortles his breath with resignation that the “Grays” will be back for him. That’s why he moved away from dogs. Canines make too much noise when THEY come.
Perhaps the movie will work best for those who already tuned in to the conspiracy theory radio waves and know the difference between a “Gray” and a “Reptilian.” But for those of us who get out once in a while, it just all feels a bit hokey. Ultimately, the movie comes down to that most pertinent of fears for parents: the threat of losing a child. The steps Daniel and Lacy take to stop those darn Grays, especially the latter’s deranged trip to the local kennel, pull the audience in for a rousing climax that is predictable but satisfying for the stormy climate Dark Skies sets. Unfortunately, for a supposedly scary movie, the only thing from above that may chill you when you leave the theater is rain.