As generic as its title, Jack Heller‘s monster-in-the-woods horror film aspires to be the stuff of nightmares but instead merely lulls the viewer into an untroubled sleep. While its emphasis on character dynamics and a slow burn atmosphere is to be commended, Dark Was the Night is too derivative and familiar to make much of an impact.
Veteran actor Kevin Durand (currently seen on FX’s The Strain) plays the central role of the sheriff of the deceptively named Maiden Woods — a small, isolated town seemingly located in the upper Northwest (actually Long Island, representing one of the film’s canniest deceptions) — who’s separated from his wife (Bianca Kajlich) and grieving over the recent accidental death of their oldest son. Already emotionally beleaguered, his situation worsens with the sudden appearance of cloven hoof prints leading into the woods and a series of mysterious deaths that seem to indicate the presence of a malevolent creature.
Theorizing that its appearance may result from the recent decimation of forest land by a logging company up north, his investigation, conducted largely on the internet, suggests that it could be the manifestation of a Native American myth. (He could have saved a lot of time if he had only seen Larry Fessenden‘s 2001 eco-themed horror film Wendigo, an obvious inspiration).
Accompanied by his loyal deputy (Lukas Haas, Witness), a transplant from New York City whose big city origins inspire more than a little derision from the rural folk, the sheriff soon finds himself catching fleeting glimpses of the menacing beast who’s apparently as camera shy as Sasquatch.
In between his professional duties, he’s coping with his troubled personal life, including his perpetually fearful young son whose behavior problems at school provide a rare lighthearted moment when the parents have a contentious meeting with a grade school teacher.
Working from a deliberately opaque screenplay by Tyler Hisel, director Heller ratchets up the tension in ever so slow fashion until a climactic showdown at a church where the townspeople, who seem to number about a dozen, have huddled together for protection. By the time the creature finally makes his fully unveiled, CGI-enhanced appearance, suffice it to say that he’s less than impressive.
Durand delivers a strong turn as the stoic good guy, and Haas provides solid support as the fish-out-of-water deputy who’s attracted the attention of a sexy local girl. But their efforts aren’t enough to prop up the molasses-paced proceedings shot in such a dark, monochromatic fashion that it’s hard to tell the difference between day and night. The nifty final shot is undeniably impressive, even if it does disquietingly portend that a wholly unnecessary sequel may be in the offing.
Production: Caliber Media Company, Foggy Bottom Pictures, Molecule, Preferred Content, Sundial Pictures
Cast: Kevin Durand, Lukas Haas, Biancha Kajlich, Nick Damici, Heath Freeman
Director Jack Heller
Screenwriter: Tyler Hisel
Producers: Joey Carey, Jack Heller, Dylan K. Narang, Stefan Nowicki, Dallas Sonnier
Executive producers: Ross M. Dinerstein, Tyler Hisel, Kevin Iwashina, Ted Markovic, Alexander Robb
Director of photography: Ryan Samul
Production designers: John L. Manahi, Adam Giambattista
Editors: Paul Covington, Toby Yates, Tim Donovan
Costume designer: Haley Lieberman
Composer: Darren Morze
Casting: James Calleri
Not rated, 98 min.