Sunday, March 17, 2013

Dark Skies/ *** (PG-13)

Lacy Barrett: Keri Russell
Daniel Barrett: Josh Hamilton
Jesse Barrett: Dakota Goyo
Sam Barrett: Kadan Rockett
Edwin Pollard: J.K. Simmons
Kevin Ratner: L.J. Benet
Shelly Jessup: Annie Thurman

Dimension Films presents a film written and directed by Scott Stewart. Running time: 97 min. Rated PG-13 (for violence, terror throughout, sexual material, drug content, and language – all involving teens).

There are two basic kinds of horror movies these days. One is designed to shock the audience with gore and loud noises and human aberrations that have little to do with the fears we actually all share. The other kind of horror movie is more classic. It wants to tell a story. It wants us to relate to the characters upon which its horrors are being enacted. It shows us an aspect of life we can all relate to before it takes us down its supernatural path. That’s the kind of movie that “Dark Skies” aspires to be.

The last few years have been difficult financially for my nuclear family. We often find ourselves living paycheck to paycheck, wondering if this bill is going to get paid or if that one is going to have to wait another week. Since finances are that everyday element in everyone’s life that they wear closest to their chest, I imagine many people have existed this way for the last several years. Neighbors and even friends would never know it because that just isn’t something you let anyone know who doesn’t need to.

The Barretts are a family struggling in just that way. Daniel is an out of work architect who just can’t get a break in finding a new job. Lacy is a Realtor during one of the worst housing markets in the country’s history. They have two boys. Jesse is a teenager going through all those transitions from childhood to adulthood that teenagers always struggle to understand. Sam is still at that vulnerable age where he needs adult guidance and doesn’t have any understanding of what the rest of his family is working through. Then, as is often the case in a horror movie, strange things start happening around the house.

The events are minor at first, the refrigerator appears to be raided, and then all its contents are stacked in the kitchen one night while everyone sleeps. Sam seems to be the first victim of the events. He tells his mother about the Sandman, who has performed these acts and tells him not to tell anyone. Soon the events escalate, however, resulting in one of those great jump-out-of-your-seat moments when Lacy walks into Sam’s room one night. Then the events start affecting everyone in the household, sometimes even when they’re away from the house.

The atmosphere of the film, woven by writer-director Scott Stewart, gives the impression of an approach that might’ve been taken in the 80s. It’s a more natural atmosphere than can be found in Stewart’s previous directorial efforts “Legion” and “Priest”. It isn’t literally as dark as those films, which allows for an undercurrent of unseen darkness flowing underneath the suburban setting. It’s something more akin to the original “Poltergeist” than the overproduced visual effects laden projects he’s done in the past. The opening credit sequence shows more restraint than the bombast of his past work. The camera work and images could belong to a coming of age story set in the suburbs if it weren’t for the lack of background noise and the quiet eerie score by Joseph Bishara.

Stewart’s screenplay and toned down direction take their time and build the tension to a crescendo, a storytelling approach that is not as valued as it once was. Each event builds upon the previous one. The way everything plays out in the secrecy of the family unit allows the audience to understand that everything will be interpreted differently by the friends and neighbors outside. The developments cleverly make it appear as if something more ordinarily sinister is occurring within the Barrett household. Are their parents abusing the boys? Are they having marital problems? Is the husband losing his mind?

The cast handles their predicament well. Josh Hamilton (“J. Edgar”) is easy to believe as a father who has snapped even though the audience knows that’s not what’s happened. Dakota Goyo (“Real Steel”) is one of those child discoveries as Jesse. He’ll be seen in many more movies to come. The great character actor J.K. Simmons, Juno’s dad, is brought in to lend credibility to the supernatural element. Keri Russell seems to be enjoying a career comeback. If you haven’t seen her in the new cable television series “The Americans”, you’re missing one of the best shows on the air today. Russell has an incredible ability to express stress through her eyes. She’s the anchor here.

I will not hint at the true nature of what is causing the incidents that appear to be tearing the Barrett family apart. You may not even be able to discern that from the trailers, another undervalued tactic today. The science fiction elements do place a mirror up to what many American households are going through today, however. Our sense of pride doesn’t allow us to let others into to our personal lives, setting us up for misinterpretation through gossip. “Dark Skies” doesn’t break any molds, but is a well told horror story that follows all it cues correctly. It has a few good scares and thoughtful execution. It won’t scare the hell out of you, but at least it isn’t mindless shocks and gore.

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