Crash Analysis: DARK SKIES (2013)

Family nightmare of interstellar proportions

A solid surprise

Over time, alien visitation or abduction movies see to come out of the blue, so to speak.     dark_skies_ver5 Sure, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) and ET – THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982), may have collected the oohs and ahhs of audiences worldwide, but I’ll take XTRO (1983), ALTERED (2006), and even COMMUNION (1989) any day for the real horror splendor of it all. Sorry, we’re not dealing with alien invasion here, just those small party visits to keep things intimate and personal, and uncanny.

DARK SKIES (2013) is the latest horror/sci-fi that forces us once again to acknowledge that our homes are not sanctuaries, and when it comes to the Universe, we may only be a big fish in a very small pond if not a puddle. Hit-or-miss writer/director, Scott Stewart got it right this time with a surefire winner for those who like that extra chill with their sci-fi.

The tractor beam is set upon the Barrett family, who collectively mirror the average struggling American family. Lacey (Keri Russell) and husband Daniel (Josh Hamilton), have two young boys (Dakota Goyo and Kadan Rockett), and a façade of a happy home. Jesse’s (Goyo) starting to spread his tween wings, Sammy’s (Rockett) an inquisitive little kid, Daniel’s desperate for work and lovemaking after a layoff (and butts heads with Jesse quite often), and Lacey’s the mom trying to keep the ship afloat as she hopes real estate will fill the family bank account. But when strange things start to happen in the homestead, think POLTERGEIST (1982) here, the family must accept the highly improbable, and stick together to keep world traveling wolves at bay.

Granted, the foundation for the tale isn’t that different from many we’ve seen in the past, but Stewart’s excellent dialogue brings a breath of authenticity that many movies of this ilk lack. With that comes some wonderful character development, and very relatable story lines and subplots. Together, Russell and Hamilton become one phenomenal team with believable chemistry, and push-and-pull Goyo may as well be their offspring. That threesome carries the film, though Russel and Hamilton truly delivered on a grand scale by nailing just about every emotion known to humankind.

To enhance the ominous feel and element of foreboding, even in the daylight, David Boyd’s exceptional cinematography delivers the atmosphere. Then again, most science fiction and horror fans have seen his work on “The Walking Dead” and “Firefly”, among others. His shots are crisp and definitive, and even in the darkness, no detail is lost on the viewer – and Boyd accomplishes this without presenting a sterile look.

DARK SKIES brings the suspense early, and keeps the tension brewing throughout – whether something strange is afoot, or even in a simple family bout. What Stewart captures is that horrific feeling that we can’t control a damn thing in our lives. The Barretts are screwed with finances, the mortgage, and any bill in general – much like many in America, and around the globe. Then their one son hangs out with a questionable character, the other needs hand holding, and when things go off the rails, even a little bit, the Barrett’s friends and neighbors are gone, and the family becomes their own island in judgmental suburbia. Lacey and Daniel must now fight on their own – and the only fight they have left is the equivalent of a suicide mission.

Yet seeing the Barrett’s world shrink until they are but a lonely speck ripe for the picking, really amped up the scares and suspense. DARK SKIES truly became more claustrophobic as time marched on as Freud’s “uncanny” continued to come right at them. We not only witness a family struggling against far more intelligent dark sources, but working overtime to keep their minds sharp in a world that shut them out.

For a PG-13 rating, I wasn’t expecting much, but Stewart delivered a solid and impressive tale. If more PG-13 horrors are as well crafted as DARK SKIES, many won’t cringe about the rating. The only other PG-13 horror to have any weight and merit is the exhilarating THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) – and we’ll have to wait and see if WORLD WAR Z (USA/Malta, 2013) doesn’t fall short.

This is definitely worth a rental, and conversation afterwards. Admittedly, I didn’t care for the completely non-sensical idea of branding in the film (you’ll see), but that wasn’t nearly enough to bring the house down.

With Stuart’s successful “Defiance” pilot, and this feature, those bad days may just be behind him. I doubt we’ll see another LEGION (2010) from him, and look forward to his next venture.

3.5 out of 5 stars

(Photo from Imp Awards)

Crash Analysis Support Team: Kid In Play (Part I) – Guest Post from R. S. Brzoska

Here is a short list of movies that have something in common. Play along for a moment.   tumblr_mcvaepzkDd1r995rpo1_500  Can you guess what it is?

 

The Sixth Sense

The Hills Have Eyes

Poltergeist

Pet Sematary

Last House on the Left

The Exorcist

Xtro

 

If you guessed that each was a horror movie that featured child endangerment as a central plot point, go ahead and pat yourself on the back. You’d be correct.

So it’s no secret that kids in peril are a pretty common trope in horror media. I think it’s worthwhile, as horror consumers and producers, to take a moment and think about why. First let’s agree that few motivators are as intimate yet universally recognized as the bond between a parent and child. Most people readily accept and understand a mother’s desire to protect her infant; a father’s need to avenge his son’s death.

An audience knows on a primal level that the parental bond cuts both ways. Yes, it can bring deep satisfaction and happiness. But it is also a source of deep anxiety. Few things can drive a person to the darkest corners of the human psyche as grief for a dead child. Few things can drive human beings to extreme behavior as easily as the desire to protect a child. Synergistically speaking, horror is a genre most interested in exploiting our insecurities and forcing us to confront our anxieties head-on. It’s no surprise then that the horror genre repeatedly takes advantage of something so primeval and readily accessible.

In The Hills Have Eyes, for example, a father goes to murderous extremes (and endures a beating in the process) in order to find his infant daughter. In Last House on the Left, the parents are able to commit horrible acts of violence after their daughter has been savagely beaten and raped. In Pet Sematary, Louis Creed is driven to do the unspeakable while grieving for his dead son. A desperate mother crosses to “the other side” in order to retrieve her missing daughter in Poltergeist.

In each of these films, child endangerment drives the action well beyond the normative and the rational. No one but the depraved and the sociopathic would do this stuff unless the stakes were extremely high. Which brings us to the second really great aspect of child endangerment as a plot device: humanizing the story.

While it might, indeed, be fun or intellectually interesting to watch the depraved and sociopathic engage in misanthropic behavior[i], it doesn’t give an audience much to relate to. An underdog father fighting to save his family, however, does. People get it. Instantly. His struggle becomes the audience’s struggle. His triumphs and failures become theirs. People can relate to him, will worry for him, and squirm in their seats when things go badly for him.

Even if child endangerment isn’t driving a parent to extreme behavior, a well-characterized relationship between a parent and a child-in-peril can keep a story grounded in reality despite a maelstrom of disturbing supernatural occurrences and elicit sympathy and genuine feeling where a lesser horror might only manage a few scares.

For example, in The Sixth Sense it’s the finely drawn tension that has been simmering between Cole (Haley Joel Osment) and his mother, Lynn (Toni Collette), which leads to this emotionally charged scene.[ii] Forget the trick ending. It’s this stuff that makes the movie worth re-watching:

My favorite scene from “The Sixth Sense” – YouTube

Having established that children in peril can supercharge the action and establish sympathy in the audience, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if it’s a good idea to include a kid in every horror script. To understand why it’s not, let’s take a look at some of the ancillary audience biases and expectations regarding children in danger.

Coming up in part II…



[i] And here I’ll say that there are many fine horror movies that, in effect, do just that. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, for example. However, these movies are less interested in drama and normal human relationships than they are in depicting horrifying possible realities. They want the audience to understand themselves as victims and drive home the Lovecraftian notion that the universe is an uncaring place and our existence here is tenuous and temporary. The catharsis comes not from the story itself, but from the viewer confronting the reality portrayed by the film, surviving, and emerging shaken but unscathed. Worth an essay in and of itself.

[ii] This of course ties into all kinds of stuff like dialog and character development. But then, no single element of a film or any work of art works alone.

R.S. Brzoska has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes University and is currently completing his first novel, “The First Decree,” between teaching at Kings College (Pennsylvania) and raising his children. He’s a bookworm and film geek who particularly loves the genres of horror and science fiction. Find him on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/RSBrzoska

(Photo from Hello Giggles.)

Crash Reports: Crash Palace Productions Presents – The Last Knock

This is only a test.

If this had been a real podcast…     the-day-movie-poster-11

Jonny Numb (@JonnyNumb), who provided the excellent guest review of this year’s THE  EVIL DEAD (just scroll down a bit to see his piece), and I have conspired to bring you a horror blog, The Last Knock.

I know, I know, there are many podcasts out there, and several with a horror focus. And I could go all boot camp and say, in a paraphrasing way, “There are many podcasts, but this one is mine,” but Jonny and I have a plan.

See, we love the horror genre. Love it. But this doesn’t mean we sell our souls to indulge in every movie that comes along. Like many fans, we’re searching through the milieu to find those awesome cinematic features that raise the bar for the genre. After all, horror is not well respected in critical circles. Like science fiction and fantasy, horror never received the blessing from those who find merit in drama and highbrow comedy. It’s not that Jonny and I are out to prove how intelligent and mesmerizing horror can be, but we hope to dig a bit deeper to unmask its true value from those films that deliver far more than gross outs and gratuitous nudity.

Therefore, we dove right in and put together a thirty minute podcast. Sure, it’s rough around the edges, but remember, this is a test. Even so, we decided to share it with everyone.

We’ll definitely be back in two weeks (Sunday, June 2) to bring you something new – and improved.

The show won’t simply be a Siskel and Ebert format, although we did discuss 2011’s THE DAY (use the search to see the review on this site), we will explore many facets of the genre, yet review films on occasion. As we move forward, we’ll have guests and much more. Regardless, we hope to entertain, and provide food for thought – but we’re hungry too, so feel free to chime in at your leisure.

Here’s the link to our test broadcast:

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/thelastknock/2013/05/19/review-of-the-day-2011

Tune in and enjoy.

(Photo from Beyond Hollywood.)

Crash Reports: Mother’s Day – How My Mom Helped Me with Horror

Admittedly, the above is the worst title of all time, but what the hell can I do? My family   legend_of_boggy_creek   buried my Mom on Thursday, and today is Mother’s Day. In her honor, I had a mini “Have Gun – Will Travel” festival at home because she loved westerns. It didn’t cause my anxiety, tension, and sadness to subside, but I always learn a bit about life from Richard Boone’s Paladin. But I was thinking more about what Mom did for me with horror movies and my initial fear of them.

When I was seven, we headed down to the Route 3 Drive-In in Rutherford, New Jersey, to catch a double bill: Oddly, THE RED TENT (1969) was paired with 1972’s THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK. I still remember haunting images from Sean Connery’s arctic drama, but BOGGY CREEK messed with my head. I can still hear the foreboding howl of bigfoot from the swamp, and can see his hairy arm reaching out to take a human soul. I hunkered down in the back seat of my Dad’s Plymouth Satellite, and begged for the movie to end. I don’t think the movie had the same effect on my five-year-old brother Mark.

Regardless, we lived on Wilson Avenue in Kearny at the time, and our bedroom was right next to the kitchen. I slept in the bottom bunk, and my brother above. I was scared shitless, and cried, but Mom stayed with us, left the door open, and kept the stove light on for three days. Going to the bathroom at night when everyone was asleep during that time became its own nightmare. After all, sasquatch just had to reach out, grasp my leg, and pull me under – and I knew by the time I screamed for help, it would already be too late. Therefore, I jumped out of my bed and ran to the toilet. To get back into bed, I dove in like a stuntman. Once, however, I leapt too high and smashed into my brother’s bunk. Good times.

Bigfoot didn’t haunt me alone. I remember watching the bastardized American version of GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS! (1956) with Raymond Burr. It wasn’t the giant lizard that scared me so much as his roar. Well, then again, Godzilla rising out of the Passaic River to squash my house did come to mind, but what’s a kid supposed to do? Yet, Godzilla was too cool to be ignored. And even though his cry made me cringe (still does), the only time I was allowed to not eat dinner with the family came during ABC’s “The 4:30 Movie” whenever it was “Godzilla Week.” Other than that, although I can’t remember any of the movies off the top of my bald head, I can never forget the “Chiller” intro whenever I watched a creature feature at night with my Dad.

At this point, I was still pressing on, trying to face up to the jolts, squeamishness, and fear that lingered after watching a horror movie. But it wasn’t just horror. Disaster movies seemed to have the same effect. In 1974, we went to see THE TOWERING INFERNO. Now, if that’s not horror, I don’t know what is: Burning building, trapped people, despair, hopelessness… Well, my young self couldn’t take it anymore. I burst into tears, during a scene of intense flames and a screaming woman (Susan Blakely?), and Mom led me into the lobby. “It’s only a movie,” she had told me. And no, Mom never indulged in Wes Craven’s THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, which had been released three years before. But she did show me on television during a behind-the-scenes news report, how the special effects guys had made movie magic. That did make me feel a bit better – and helped come to terms with other horrors down the road.

Yes, THE TOWERING INFERNO kept me up all night, and for several days thereafter. I replayed the screaming fireman as he burned down the line into the elevator shaft a million times in my little head.

1975 brought television’s “Trilogy of Terror” with Karen Black. Like many, I can’t remember the first three installments, but the fourth with that Zuni fetish doll – Holy shit! I freaked out, and immediately pulled my feet off the living room rug. I knew that little bastard had to be somewhere. And four years later, thanks to me clinging to the walls of the same living room during “Salem’s Lot”, Mom and Dad felt at fourteen that I wasn’t ready to see ALIEN in theatres – which ultimately turned out to be my favorite movie of all.

Over time, I faced my fears by watching horror after horror, and fell head over heals for vampires, and spooky ghost stories. And although I keep a master list of the horrors I watch, several titles escape me, and I’ve yet to figure them out. Now, after staring down my phobia with one movie after another, I long to find horrors that will bring that chill back. Sigh.

But I thank my Mom for her patience and help when facing fear during my younger years. She was one hell of a woman. And although she wasn’t into the slasher sub-genre, Mom did indulge in dramatic horror. I know she was upset with Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), because he didn’t show her hoofed devil child (she’d read Ira Levin’s novel), and she told me that she and the kids in the theatre screamed like mad during BUD ABBOTT AND LOU COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948).

Granted, I can crawl into bed on my own, but certain horrors still freak me out and bring me pause, but that’s another post for another time. I only hope you got a chance to tell your Mom you loved her today – and if you are a Mom, please don’t teach your kids to be afraid of anything, but help them tackle fear when it overwhelms them. I’m not sure how many mother’s tell their kids not to worry about the monster on the screen, but for all who do, thank you.

PS: Two years ago, I revisited THE LEGEN OF BOGGY CREEK – and laughed out loud.

(Original movie poster from Imp Awards.)