'Dark Skies': Haunted in the Suburbs

Despite some welcome unconventional touches, Dark Skies still arranges plenty of dopey horror movie contrivances.

Dark Skies

Director: Scott Stewart
Cast: Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett, J.K. Simmons
Rated: PG-13
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-02-22
Official site

Scott Stewart's first two films are what you might have expected from a special effects whiz making the transition to studio genre fare. Legion (2009) and Priest (2011) both deliver maximum visual business on a medium budget. And neither makes all of that computer-animation compelling, once the novelty of rogue angels or future-western vampires wears off.

His third film, Dark Skies, doesn't even appear to be have such novelty: a suburban family is haunted by mysterious forces in their home. These forces seem to be extraterrestrial rather than the usual supernatural, but the plot outlines are too familiar. The husband and wife don't believe their eyes. A little kid draws pictures of a creepy figure with a benign nickname (in this case, the Sandman). We've seen it before, often in other movies produced by Jason Blum, whose filmography includes Insidious, Sinister, and the Paranormal Activity series.

Yet, following the noise of Legion and Priest, much of Dark Skies goes quiet, patient, and surprisingly believable in its treatment of the human characters and their environment. The Barretts suffer from middle-class anxiety before they start hearing things in the dead of night; Lacy (Keri Russell) is a real state agent struggling to sell fixer-uppers to buyers who could probably do better, while out-of-work designer Daniel (Josh Hamilton) goes to job interviews with a half-grown beard.

Their early dialogue reveals this precarious financial situation, and it has a natural ring to it, benefiting as well from Russell and Hamilton's earnest performances. (Hamilton starred in Noah Baumbach's first movie, Kicking and Screaming, and he's not an obvious choice for a horror movie lead, which makes his low-achieving crank of a husband oddly endearing, his familiarity coming more from real life echoes than stock movie roles.) Of course, the couple worries about their children, 13-year-old Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and younger Sam (Kadan Rockett). While Rockett is saddled with much of the movie's most rote material and, like a lot of child performers, turns wooden when he's supposed to be haunted, Goyo is very good as a confused adolescent, suspicious of his parents but protective of his younger brother.

The film effectively establishes the different worlds inhabited by the kids and the adults. Scenes outside of his parents' view, where he hangs out with an older boy (L.J. Benet) and moons over an neighborhood girl (Annie Thurman), take on a melancholy air, and shots of Jesse riding his bike down his street have a dusky mood more subtle than a typical horror movie, as if Stewart used the alien angle to crib, ever so slightly, from movies like E.T. (or at least homages to E.T., like Super 8).

The slightly heightened realism informs the movie's evolving sense of dread. Menacing, unseen alien forces are added to the Barrett family's mounting problems like another bill. If other haunting movies focus on a particular family member in danger of possession or worse, much of Dark Skies maintains interest in all the family members, equally bedeviled and equally unable to help each other. Even at odds, they're in this together, and when Lacy and Daniel visit alien expert Edwin Pollard (J.K. Simmons), he confirms the lack of a chosen one. "There's nothing special about you," he says. They're the subjects of experiments, nothing more.

Despite these unconventional touches, the movie still arranges plenty of dopey horror movie contrivances. Just after he's explained that the haunting is more or less arbitrary, Pollard adds that the aliens do have a method of selecting a family member for abduction, after all. This and other details don't make much sense: how likely is it, for example, that neighbors and doctors would notice strange markings on both of the Barrett sons before either parent would?

In the end, the family's mutual desperation is touching -- one bittersweet scene has them all seated around the dinner table for an isolated Fourth of July dinner -- but Dark Skies doesn't live up to the promise of its best moments. That's never truer than at the movie's climax, which goes in such an interestingly trippy direction that it raises questions about why the movie didn't follow that muse further, and sooner. Instead, even the movie's better ideas are undermined by an overbearing score and well-worn imagery. Like so many hauntings, it feels like a losing battle, ceded too early.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.