D: Jack Heller / 98m
Cast: Kevin Durand, Lukas Haas, Bianca Kajlich, Nick Damici, Heath Freeman, Ethan Khusidman, Sabina Gadecki, Billy Paterson
The small town of Maiden Woods is a quiet, peaceful place where everyone knows everyone else, and whose sheriff is a man named Paul Shields (Durand). Grieving the loss of his young son Tim, Paul has split from his wife Susan (Kajlich) and their older son Adam (Khusidman) through his feelings of guilt (he was looking after Tim when he died). Estranged and lacking faith in himself, he’s called out to a farm by the owner, Ron (Paterson), who’s missing one of his horses. Certain that there’s nothing suspicious going on, he puts it down to Ron leaving a gate open. Back in town, Susan tries to get Paul to confront his feelings but he doesn’t want to, but he does agree to look after Adam for the night. While they have dinner, Adam sees something outside, but when Paul investigates he doesn’t find anything.
The next morning, Paul’s deputy, Donny Saunders (Haas) calls at Paul’s home and asks him if he’s been outside yet. Paul follows him out and finds a line of muddy hoof prints that circle his house and then head further into town, and then out into the woods where they disappear abruptly. The puzzling thing about them is that whatever animal made them, it was walking on two legs. While Paul starts to look into the matter, and does his best to reassure the worried townspeople, Donny hears about the local legend of a creature that lives in the nearby woods, and how it hunts by using the upper branches of trees as cover.
Paul has an encounter one night on the road with a dead deer. He hears something in amongst the trees, and rattled, gets back in his car only to find the deer has disappeared. He checks with the sheriff of a neighbouring county to see if there have been any animal attacks there recently. He learns that a logging crew were found dead not too long ago, and there have been a number of animal killings. Between them, Paul and Donny come to the conclusion that the logging company’s efforts have forced the legendary creature of the woods out of its natural habitat and it’s now trying to take over a new territory for itself, namely, Maiden Woods.
When a fierce snowstorm cuts off the town and the few remaining inhabitants who haven’t already evacuated, Paul decides to get everyone holed up in the church and to wait it out until morning when the storm has passed; then they can get help. But the creature proves unwilling to wait and launches an assault on the church and the fearful townsfolk inside…
Back in 2009, Tyler Hisel’s script The Trees was included in the annual Hollywood Black List, the list of the 100 best unproduced screenplays. Based loosely on real-life events that occurred in 1855 in Topsham, England, when the inhabitants woke to find freshly fallen snow and biped hoof prints tracing the landscape, Hisel’s script was eventually picked up for production in 2012, and though filming was completed in the same year, it remained unseen until a showing at the Screamfest Horror Film Festival in 2014. Such a delayed release usually speaks of either production problems or a lack of confidence in the final product. But either way, potential viewers who might be put off by such a delay would be doing themselves a disservice, because said final product is one of the better creature features out there and well worth seeing.
Part of the movie’s appeal is the performance by Durand, an actor usually employed to play bad guys. Here he gets a chance at playing the hero plagued both by self-doubt and being out of his depth. His reactions to the increasing weirdness in his town are flecked with small moments of subdued panic, and it’s this considered approach to both the character and the material that raises what would normally be a stock role into something much more subtle and much richer. Even when the narrative requires Paul to play the action hero, his taking charge plays better as a result of the work Durand has already put in, and instead of it feeling clichéd or forced, Paul’s heroism becomes a natural consequence of his dealing with his guilty feelings.
Having such a degree of depth in its main character, the movie has a grounding that makes the fantasy and horror elements feel more credible, even if the creature, when it’s finally revealed, is not as scary or convincing as it needs to be. It’s a shame as up until then the movie does a very good job of keeping it out of the spotlight, and the brief glimpses we do see of it are carefully chosen to good effect (and to meet the demands of the budget). The creature has its roots in Native American myths and legends, including that of the wendigo, and the concept of its being disturbed from its natural habitat is another of Hisel’s ideas that carries some extra weight (and adds some subtext about endangered species).
Thanks to Heller – who also directed the under-rated Enter Nowhere (2011) – the plot unfolds at a measured pace, with equal time given to the mystery of what’s happening in and around Maiden Woods, and the emotional problems that Paul is trying to deal with. As both storylines converge, Heller increases the tension through judicious use of close ups and sound effects, and manages the unenviable task of having his two leads come to the conclusion that there might be a supernatural answer to what’s happening by emphasising their own doubts and disbelief, even though everything tells them otherwise. It makes for one of the more convincing “it-must-be-a-monster” moments in creature feature history, and is one more example of the care and attention taken by Heller, his cast and crew.
Rating: 7/10 – much better than most other movies of the same ilk, Dark Was the Night is a minor gem that shouldn’t be missed; thanks to the efforts of all concerned this is a much more meticulous and rewarding experience than could be gleaned from at first glance, and proof that low budget horror doesn’t have to be witless or exploitative.