Dark Was the Night is a 2014 creature feature directed & produced by Jack Heller. This is his second directorial endeavour (the first being 2011’s Enter Nowhere), but these days he is probably best known for his producer credit on 2015’s Bone Tomahawk. If you are a fan of the sweet, sweet tension that is the slow and plodding reveal of a creature over the course of a film, you’ve found an interesting movie to add to your list. On that note, I’m about to go real deep on this movie (read, I’m going to spoil the shit out of it), so if you haven’t seen it do yourself a favor and watch the trailer to decide whether you care about discovering the gory details on your own. Got it? Good. Let’s do this.
Reviewed by: Jake
Set in “Maiden Woods”, a fictional little hamlet in upstate New York, Dark Was the Night follows the story of town sheriff Paul Shields (Kevin Durand). The movie opens at a logging operation north of town, where it becomes immediately apparent that people have fucked up and there will be hell to pay. Not two minutes into the movie and you have a smorgasbord of monster flick fare; severed arms lying on the ground and people being attacked by an unknown animal juuuust off screen. This is, of course, bad news for our hero, sheriff Shields, because it’s a movie and you can bet your ass that thing is going to make a beeline for the town. Spoiler: it does, and it’s not long before animals go missing and massive footprints just appear throughout town. Normally, I’d put all my money on Durand in this scenario. He’s a big guy and he knows how to take a fucker down.
The problem is that he’s a completely broken man. One of his two sons died prior to the events of the film in what the viewer can surmise was a tragic drowning accident. It’s ruined his marriage and left him a blubbering mess who feels like he can’t protect anyone if he can’t even protect his own son. Very ‘adult fears’ type territory we’re traversing here, kids.
As the evidence mounts that something strange is out in the woods, Shields and his new, city-slicker deputy, Donny (Lukas Haas) try to unearth the cause of the strange happenings. We get a glimpse of the creature here and there, but everything is really up in the air until some hunters are found ripped limb-from-limb in a stand of trees near town. Immediately thereafter, a snowstorm blows in and completely traps the town in whiteout conditions. Perfect timing. Fuck you too, nature.
Shields gathers everyone and posts-up in the chapel at the center of town to defend against further attacks. As night falls, the creature breaks into the church and the cops are able to kill it after a game of cat & mouse, ultimately ending with Shields stabbing it roughly eleven hundred times with a Ka-Bar. Speaking of which, this movie seems like it was sponsored by Ka-bar. The thing is seen hanging from Shields’ utility belt or nightstand in almost every scene. Subtle. Chekhov’s product placement.
Hooray. Except for that wasn’t the only monster… It’s with this realization that the movie cuts to an external shot to reveal the church literally crawling with the bastards. It doesn’t look good for our protagonists and then movie just sort of ends...
What the Movie Does Right
The main triumph of this movie is the monster reveal. Unless we’re talking Kaiju (which we aren’t), a monster movie lives and dies by two things:
Methodic reveal of a monster over the course of the movie that increases tension and punctuates key moments to the story arc.
A fucking cool looking monster.
We’re going to talk about both of these things, but you’ll have to wait a while to hear about said monster’s visual aesthetic (you should read into that). Dark Was the Night is a 90 minute movie that spends the vast majority of its runtime focusing on uncovering the monster, while the whole time giving you little morsels of what the creature is and isn’t capable of. It does a tremendous job of building tension and gearing you up to discover what exactly this hellbeast is, which was really a boon for my immersion. Hell, it spends a decent amount of time just talking about the footprints the thing leaves behind.
Another element that Dark Was the Night nails is the atmosphere and stakes. Not that this is wholly separate from the above, but I’m speaking more to the town and townspeople side of things. Maiden Woods is a sleepy town; the kind that so often pops up in these types of stories. Everyone knows everyone. There is a sense of both boredom and comfort in the familiarity with everything else around. This is really important for the movie’s development because it provides a backstory for Shields without needing to overdo things with exposition. Conversations that happen are the kind that would probably happen in this scenario, and do not feel like forced glimpses into these people’s lives solely for the benefit of the listener. Sure, it gets a little tedious to watch Durand blubbering about all the time, and I tired of the conversations about his dead kid, but these are the kinds of things people talk about in small towns. There’s nothing else going on. Gossip’s gonna gossip.
What the Movie Does Wrong
Remember important monster movie thing number two from the above? Yeah? Wait for it.... BAM!
This is one of the most wholly unacceptable displays of monster I’ve ever seen. What the fuck were they thinking? I have so many grievances to air that I don’t even know where to begin, so let’s see how this goes.
Why is the monster so reptilian? It lives in the fucking arctic north. That’s not where reptiles live. The movie goes out of its way to discuss the cloven-hoofedness of the tracks in town (BTW: this was loosely based on an unsolved event that took place in England in the 1800’s), so why do a 180 on that with the clawed lizard man once we reach the climax? This is also a small budget film, which presents obvious issues when thinking of the budget available for showcasing a monster on-screen. Given the constraints though, wouldn’t it have made sense to approach this more creatively? The reveal is undeniably great, so couldn’t we have leaned into that a bit more and only shown part of the monster, obscured it in some way (it is dark after all), or at least cut out the very end, where they decide to show unhealthy amounts of the horrible cg? Fuck, do anything other than give full frontal screentime to an awkwardly lit, blurrily textured shit heap of a green reptile. It looks like the CG cousin of the goombas from the live action Mario movie.
After ranting about that to such a degree, it goes without saying that any other qualms I have with the film pale in comparison to the preposterous treatment of the creature in its final form, so I’ll go quickly… There is some very odd coloring in this movie. Each and every shot outside is the most blue thing I’ve seen since The Ring.
I wondered if it was supposed to be some sort of metaphor for Shields’ sadness, but could not figure out the rules by which it applied, so I’m left to assume something went wrong with the exterior shots and coloring couldn’t help. I know that’s not how it works, but damnit it feels like the only explanation. That or Heller is a big Eiffel 65 fan.
Finally, you will likely grow tired of listening to people talk about dead kid, and you will probably get sick of Shields moping around. Durand does a great job in this movie, and the emotion doesn’t feel stilted, but it flirts with being too much at times.
Story: 6.5 - For the most part, I enjoyed this story. On the surface, it’s a pretty simple “monster fucks with a small town from the creepy depths of the woods” conceit. Dig a little deeper, and you add adult fears piled on adult fears. Dead kid, some environmentalist/conservationist overtones, and general depression and estrangement from loved ones all come up. These aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but tended to pop into my mind a little too frequently for me to really feel like there was an alignment between what the film was and what it was trying to be.
World-Building / Immersion: 7.5 - I’m keeping this score high despite what I said above because fuck you, that’s what I’m allowed to do on my own website. We talk about how story is concept and immersion is execution, and I thought that my qualms better fit into the concept portion of the equation since I thought of them more of my own accord. Is there environmental commentary? Almost undeniably. Does the movie linger on it? Not really. It’s too busy going from one creature encounter to another.
Scare-Factor: 6.5 - This movie ranks fairly high on the “tense” and “dread” mini-scales that we could drill into from the more broad “scare” concept. The gold is in the reveal process. I’m just happy we didn’t see more of the creature sooner, or it could have been a disaster.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 3 - The movie should have erred more on the judicious lack side of things, and should have been more consistent with the rules it created. Does the monster have hooves or claws? God damnit, this monster looks bad. Like, really really bad, you guys. Also, blueness.
Overall: 6.5 - I’m applying a bit of a tilt up here because I, for the most part, really enjoyed the ride that got us to the climax of the film. If it had just been able to find some way to deliver a respectable creature at the end, this would be a really high score. I still give this one a recommend as a good example of how to handle the reveal over time. Just don’t you dare ever suggest I told you the “final reveal” lives up to the rest of the movie. Capisce?