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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 07.23.15] horror drama

The woods are already pretty creepy. Nearly 20 years later, I'm still not over the residual terror left after The Blair Witch Project and all these other movies about strange creatures in the woods aren't helping matters much. The thing with Dark Was the Night is that Jack Heller's second feature is far more concerned about the drama of the people who live in town than with the monster lurking in the shadows. Thank god too. The last thing we need is another generic monster in the woods horror.

It opens as you might expect: a couple of guys don't return from their shift at the logging company and when supervisors go looking, what they find is gruesome. Unfortunately, the newly opened logging operation has pushed all of the creatures in the forest from their natural habitat, including a monster that is now dangerously close to a nearby town guarded by Sheriff Paul Shields. But Shields is not at his best. The Sheriff is grieving the loss of his son and though work is the only thing keeping him going, he's distracted and a little out of touch with the world around him. He's sleepwalking through life and when people start disappearing from town, he's violently shoved back into reality and finds himself dealing not only with the pressures to keep the townsfolk safe but finally having to face the death of his child.

Dark Was the Night could easily have fallen into a trap of cheesy drama punctuated by monster movie shenanigans resulting in another forgettable b-movie, but Tyler Hisel's script is far too well written with believable characters, great drama and an impending doom that hangs over every scene. With the help of some talented actors, Heller translates that script into a great drama that seeps terror from the corners. The drama that unfolds among the townspeople and particularly around Sheriff Shields as he begins to deal with the loss of his son, is great stuff but Heller never lets you forget that there's a monster on the loose. It feels a little bit like Jaws that way; a game of cat and mouse where you only catch glimpses of the cat from the corner of your eye until you come face to face with him. As a bonus, the reveal is a great treat; a practical effects monster that impresses.

The monster story adds an interesting dimension to the typical grieving drama story but Dark Was the Night is still, at its core, the story of a man confronting his demons. It's the success of this story that really floats the movie. Kevin Durand makes the leap from supporting actor and often villain, to lead the movie and he's great, giving Sheriff Shields a depth and complexity that makes the character's struggle interesting to watch. Lukas Haas plays his sidekick and though he's better here than in anything else I've seen of his in the last few years, this is really Durand's opportunity to shine and he takes it, giving a great performance that will hopefully lead to other larger roles.

Horror fans looking for a straight up monster movie are likely to be disappointed but those that like their movies with a few shades of grey are in for a treat. Dark Was the Night doesn't compromise its drama or horror aspects and instead mixes the two into a great package.

Dark Was the Night opens theatrically and is available on VOD on July 24.

Recommended Release: The Strain Season 1

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