Horror, as a genre, certainly seems like it’s out to prove that no one, anywhere, should have kids, ever. Either someone is going to steal it and use in some sort of heinous ritual (Rosemary’s Baby), or when it grows up it will be the son of the devil (The Omen), turn out to be a murdering psychopath (The Good Son), or become a total turd (Anything featuring Ashton Kutcher).
Dark Circles, the new horror film from writer/director Paul Soter, newly available on DVD from After Dark films, follows this logic. If you’re thinking the name Paul Soter sounds familiar, it isn’t because you know him from other horror outings. No, he’s most known for his work in another genre entirely: improv sketch comedy. Soter is part of the Broken Lizard comedy troupe, you know, the guys responsible for movies like the stoner farce Super Troopers, the horror send up Club Dread, and the suds guzzling Beer Fest.
In the bonus features, Soter claims that his first love is horror—and also that all comedians are dark, haunted people inside—and while there is nothing special or outstanding about Dark Circles, it is solid genre fare.
New parents Penny (Pell James, Zodiac) and Alex (Johnathon Schaech, Road House 2) move to the country to get some peace and quiet and raise their child in more idyllic, spacious surroundings. Horror has also taught us that this never works out. A musician, Alex doesn’t want to leave the opportunities afforded in an urban setting, but he goes along to appease the mother of his child. And after a nasty dream wherein a junky leaves a skinned cat on their couch, it seems like the time has come to leave the city.
However, their transition backfires as the baby won’t sleep, and they moved in next to a noisy construction site that never seems to build anything. Massively sleep deprived, standard scary movie stuff starts to happen. They see haunting images of a spectral woman in the woods, in the mirror, in the garage, under the kitchen sink, and of course, they hear her voice in the baby monitor. You can be forgiven for thinking that baby monitors were only invented just so that people could hear creepy things in horror movies. Nerves are frayed, tempers are high, and the couple is constantly at each other’s throats. She spits in his soup, it’s that bad.
This part of the story is too exaggerated. Yeah, they haven’t been sleeping, yeah, they’re fighting all the time, that’s the same as every new parent you’ve ever met. Despite the presence of the mystery woman, the very same one who left the mangled feline corpse in Penny’s dream, you never get the feeling that they’re in the “fifth level of hell”, as she bemoans at one point.
Over time, as both Alex and Penny witness the woman—never mentioning their sightings to each other, mind you—the tension never builds quite as it should. Doors pop open randomly, the baby sitter dies, all the classics. Penny thinks she hears the sink call her a bitch, which is pretty funny. The acting doesn’t do the film any favors. Schaech and Pell are flat, not particularly engaging, and the characters are single note figurines with little to no personality.
When you step back and look at it, what Dark Circles really, truly is, is a very bare bones horror story. It feels like a first crack at the genre from someone who is a fan—it hits all the appropriate notes—but may not have a fully formed sense of story telling just yet. Dark Circles is akin to a writing exercise, designed to get the creative juices flowing, but not necessarily what you expect of a finished, polished movie.
Even the packaging screams, “Hey, this is a horror movie!” The cover image is an extreme close up of an open eye, obviously terrified, with a spooky image superimposed on the pupil. A seven minute behind the scenes feature is interesting, mostly to hear Soter talk about the origins of the film and to hear him discuss making the leap from comedy to horror.
The high point of the bonus materials is the feature length commentary with Soter, Schaech, and Ryan Turek, the managing editor at ShockTilYouDrop.com. Soter’s background in improv, and his background in comedy, makes listening to the track a great deal of fun. He’s engaging, and has a knack for relaying funny stories and anecdotes from the set. For his part, Turek offers the insight of a hardcore horror fanatic, and manages the conversation well, keeping it on track when it begins to go off the rails.