What scares you in a horror movie? They rarely do more than make me flinch with sudden loud noises. I haven’t been frightened by a scary movie in a while, perhaps not since I saw “The Last Exorcism” in 2010 or perhaps it was when I saw the remake of “Fright Night,” though the latter worked more as an adventure flic than as a scream-of-terror prompter.
Then this last weekend I was surprised and fascinated and made very uneasy by the last few moments of a new film called “Dark Skies.” A couple of things set it apart from standard mad slasher or haunted house movies. One is its science fiction element. The spooks seem to be from another world.
The other is more important. Horror movies usually give us casts of attractive young people, with the idea being that there won’t a great deal of character building going on, but the pretty actors will draw audience sympathy simply because of their looks.
Director Scott Stewart has a different formula for “Dark Skies.” The story is set in an American suburb. We concentrate on one family, and there is no one sixteen to twenty-six in the house. Ma is a real estate saleswoman played by Keri Russell. The boys are Jesse, who is about fourteen, and Sam, who is more like six.
And then Pa is a job-seeking architect played by Josh Hamilton. He plays the degraded bread-winner, a guy who wants to do right but is having trouble with his ego. In Stewart’s first two feature films (“Priest” and “Legion”), the director used the under-rated Paul Bettany to play determined but apparently over-matched characters who are a little like Pa in “Dark Skies.”
We see him go to job interviews and hear him mislead his wife, who is having trouble selling one “dated” looking ranch-house. Sex seems out of the question. They are behind on their mortgage payments. And their older son, Jesse, is running around with an older boy who is a bad influence.
Then odd things begin happening at the house, almost always at night. Two nights in a row someone gets in and makes a mess with groceries after the family has gone to bed. Their security system goes off a couple of times, with sensors at all the doors being tripped at once.
One by one, family members go into trances. Young Sam wets himself at a neighborhood party. Dad stands open-mouthed in the backyard one night. While showing the vexed house, Ma begins pounding her forehead on the french doors.
Odd marks appear on the bodies of family members. The flesh of Sam’s trunk is mottled. Dad has an itch behind one ear. Ma sports a hairline hemotoma. Jesse seems to have been branded repeatedly with small designs that look like printed electrical circuits. The cops and Child Protective Services are notified.
Tension is building. Things are getting worse and more violent, and the expert in alien visitation that Ma finds via the Internet says family members are getting close to the end of something long, and that “the gray” usually take away the family member with whom they first communicated. Stay together and buy a dog, urges Pollard, played by dependable screen vet J.K. Simmons.
We get the climax we could have expected. But then there is a complicated illusion and flashback sequence that made me feel worse-than-uneasy. I was worried about the characters here. Other moviegoers who don’t mind sitting through some cinematic character development may find “Dark Skies” works on them, too.