This Schlocktober, Comics Bulletin will be exploring the world of horror cinema, featuring thirty one films released between Halloween 2012 and Halloween 2013. Next up is writer/director Scott Stewart‘s Dark Skies.
Scott Stewart is a director I keep my eye on, despite his work never really living up to my expectations. Probably his most creatively successful work so far has been the two-part pilot for Syfy’s Defiance from earlier this year. Before that he directed both Legion, the stylish Paul Bettany-led film about a war between angels and humans, and Priest, the stylish Paul Bettany-led film about a war between vampires and humans.
It’s interesting to note that Legion had a budget of 26 million and nearly tripled that in combined foreign and domestic grosses, which helped get Priest made. However Priest cost 60 million and only brought in 78 million worldwide. Technically, it was a success, but not by very much. And reviews for both films were fairly abysmal (although I enjoyed them both to an extent). His third feature, Dark Skies, was made on a budget of 3.5 million and brought in 26. The reviews were also slightly more favorable.
So what have we learned? Big budget horror action adventures are not only difficult to recoup but hard to pull together. I’d imagine that the budgets themselves led to some creative decision-making that was geared more toward economics than narrative. Comparably, 3.5 million is chump-change that allowed Stewart to do something more emotional and less spectacle-driven. And when you make back seven times your budget, as opposed to not quite 3 or less, you get more work down the line.
Career-wise, Dark Skies might be the best thing to happen to Scott Stewart so far.
Although most reviews were still negative, Dark Skies is actually a tight little thriller that plays on the conventions and clichés of haunted house films – Poltergeist in particular – but flips the script and goes for a science fiction explanation for the strange happenings in the Barrett household.
Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton star as Lacy and Daniel Barrett, a couple with two kids a mortgage and not enough financial security. Daniel was laid off from his architectural job and Lacy is trying to sell houses in a tough market. The opening credit montage is nicely effective, setting the scene as a normal American neighborhood, but slipped in amongst the footage of kids playing and American flags waving is a house-for-sale sign due to foreclosure, signaling before the story even begins that we’re dealing with some fears and anxieties above and beyond the supernatural or paranormal.
The film does a good job accentuating Daniel’s emasculation and possible psychological break before firmly establishing an otherworldly influence on the events in the house. Events that start off like your traditional (clichéd?) hauntings. However, the script feels like it wants to go in too many directions and a couple of plot points get dropped in the rush to include as many familiar scenes as possible. For example, a threatened visit by Social Services, which is a huge event in the lives of these characters, never appears to happen. It could have been cut, but some element of the visit needed to be kept; instead it just appears to have been forgotten about.
Which is disappointing, because the real strengths of this story are the social anxieties. The fear of losing their home. The fear of masculine inadequacy. The fear of illness. The fear having their children taken from them. The fear that maybe their children were hurting themselves or each other and there was nothing they could do as parents. The fear of madness. When the aliens actually do appear in the end, it’s almost a relief.
The script also fails to really follow through on the anxieties in play, instead leaving us feeling like the story isn’t over, and it just ran out of time. Although, to be honest, nothing good was going to come of the situation. The Barrett’s are royally fucked by the end of this film and there’s nothing anybody can do to save them.
Which is a daring way to end it, and I appreciate that. I just wish we had gotten a little more attention to the real fears underlying the alien menace.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor/editor for Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available at Amazon US & UK, along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK). He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s (US & UK) and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One (US & UK) and Two (US & UK). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy.