The majority of monster movies that have come out in the last several years have been exports of Syfy’s increasingly nauseating stupidity machine, and the focus of those B-movies is typically placed on laughable creatures, one-dimensional characters, and intentionally poor storytelling. Thankfully, those are three qualities found in the network’s output that are not found in this latest creature feature.
Written by Tyler Hisel and directed by Jack Heller, Dark Was the Night is set in the small town of Maiden Woods, where strange things begin to happen in the wake of a logging company setting up shop in a nearby town. Animals go missing and cloven footprints are found all around the town, and it’s up to troubled Sheriff Paul Shields to figure out the source of the mysterious activity and protect the citizens.
Tasked with playing Sheriff Shields in Heller’s monster movie is Kevin Durand, who fans of FX’s The Strain will instantly recognize as the show’s badass exterminator Vasiliy Fet. Dark Was the Night is in many ways a showcase of Durand’s often unrecognized talents, and it is his exceptional performance that adds an emotional resonance to the film and altogether elevates the relatively generic material.
As much a story about human redemption as it is a horror movie about a vicious monster, Dark Was the Night admirably excels in the character department, as Paul Shields is a hero worth rooting for from the very beginning. The first time we meet Shields he is alone in the frigid cold, tears in his eyes for reasons not immediately known to us, and the look on Durand’s face in that moment tells the character’s whole story.
Prior to the events of the film, we learn, Shields and his wife lost one of their young sons in a tragic accident, and Durand plays the part of a helpless husband and father to a tee. Barely able to keep his own life together, and yet forced to protect an entire town full of people counting on him to save theirs, the Sheriff in many ways reminds of Jaws‘ Chief Brody, and Durand brings pathos and genuine heart to the role.
Aside from the welcome heaps of character development, Dark Was the Night also excels as a wonderfully restrained, slow burn horror story. Rather than being a straight up monster movie, it’s more focused on the impact the arrival of a monster is having on the townspeople and Maiden Woods at large, and it makes for a more interesting film than if the monster’s destruction were the sole focus.
I won’t spoil the mystery of precisely what the monster is, but Heller smartly keeps him hidden in the darkness for much of the film, and the brief reveals of a claw and a hoof are effectively chilling. At one point we glimpse his general form, but it’s not until the final battle that we actually see the creature up close and personal – and when we do, well, at least he doesn’t quite look like anything we’ve seen before.
Though Durand is the highlight of this one, Dark Was the Night is all around comprised of a very solid cast of actors. Lukas Haas plays Shields’ partner Donny, who has recently transferred out of New York City, while Nick Damici (Late Phases) is the local bartender who moonlights as a hunter. Damici doesn’t get all that much to do, but it’s always nice to see him in a horror movie, as he’s always a welcome addition.
As silly as the premise of a woods-dwelling monster may seem, Dark Was the Night does a great job at grounding the situation in reality, to the point that it’s really not hard to believe that this sort of thing could happen in your own town. The film taps into the inherent fascination we humans have with mythical monsters, and it plays out much the way a situation such as this likely would in real life.
Though some may take issue with the fact that Dark Was the Night is mostly bloodless and notably light on monster action, those who are looking for something a bit more atmospheric and character-driven will find in this one a monster movie that’s refreshingly not like most others. And though the movie may at the end of the day bring nothing new to the table, it is Kevin Durand’s performance that makes it a standout effort.
Here’s hoping Durand gets more starring roles in the near future, particularly here in the horror genre.
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