FILM SCHOOL REJECTS | by Rob Hunter September 19, 2020
Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a weekly column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime… and this week an atypical lead actor is immersed in a creature feature called ‘Dark Was the Night.’
Creature features are too few and far between these days. With the age of practical effects having passed, and with the lower costs associated with making movies about ghosts, zombies, and other one-note threats, the number of pure monster movies are sadly in decline. That means we have to celebrate the good ones when they do come along, and that means we should be celebrating 2014’s Dark Was the Night which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
What’s it about?
A small town in upstate New York wakes one morning to find a strange set of footprints trailing their way from house to house and then out into the woods beyond. The tracks are hooved and appear to be made by something walking on two legs, and no one has a clue what to make of them. Animals go missing, some people are attacked and killed, other wildlife makes an odd migration out of the area. Theories abound ranging from pranks to Native American legends to the devil himself, but whatever it is the town is looking towards one man to protect them.
Sheriff Paul Shields (Kevin Durand) is that man, but he’s not too sure he’s up to the task. He’s currently separated from his wife after the accidental death of one of their sons on his watch, and as some of the tougher locals like to remind him — how can he protect the town when he couldn’t even protect his family? He’ll find out soon enough as a storm moves in, most of the townspeople evacuate out, and those who’ve remained come under siege by the beast.
What makes it sublime?
Dark Was the Night isn’t a fancy film, and there isn’t anything here that makes it a must-see, but not every movie has to be the best movie. That said, it’s a fun time thanks to some suspenseful monster beats and choices made in both the casting and writing departments. Director Jack Heller keeps things moving and works well with shadows, and Tyler Hisel’s script introduces ideas that seem familiar on their surface even as they don’t always play out in the expected ways.
The most immediate observation worth highlighting is the casting of the two leads. Durand is a familiar face in genre fare, but he’s exclusively a supporting player elsewhere — and typically a villain at that — making this a new experience all around. He proves himself up to the task of being both heroic and dramatic, and the added character beats regarding the loss of his child and the uncertainty of his marriage never feel contrived. He carries the weight and guilt of the boy’s death, and it lingers in the air rather than finding itself forced down viewers’ throats.
Lukas Haas plays his deputy, and it’s again an unlikely casting choice. Dep. Donny Saunders is a transplant from New York City, and while everyone wants to know why he left the big city behind for this small town the answer remains elusive at first. He’s leaving something traumatic behind, but he also introduces the idea of purpose and god into the mix — could he be here in order to protect someone? The relationship between the two suggests an outcome that most genre fans will know to expect, but the script isn’t always ready to match those narrative expectations.
That’s especially the case with the film’s ending. The town’s survivors take refuge in a church to wait out the night, and if you think there’s symbolism in that you’re not wrong — but that still doesn’t mean the film’s final beats will support a reading that’s positive towards faith. Man is deemed responsible for the creature’s arrival, but is man enough to defeat it too?
The creature effects run the gamut from some solid practical work — one scene is an entertainingly direct nod to Jurassic Park (1993) — to some dodgy CG in the third act. It’s not ideal, and clearly more money would have helped with what the filmmakers envisioned, but it’s a forgivable sin for an indie affair. And that’s especially the case when those final frames roll by.
And in conclusion…
Dark Was the Night may not do anything new, really, and what it does it does on a limited budget, but it’s a fun ninety minutes for monster movie fans. Toss in some beats that play against conventions and you have a film that delivers a handful of surprises too. Plus, and this again can’t be understated, Kevin Durand as a lead protagonist is the kind of offbeat casting that more films should embrace.