If you’re a fan of action movies or genre films, you’ve likely seen Kevin Durand in something over the last decade and a half. The Canadian-born character actor has had a few recurring TV roles but primarily follows in the footsteps of folks like Brad Dourif, Jeffrey Combs, Brian Thompson, Brion James, Stephen R. Hart, Randall “Tex” Cobb, and Tommy “Tiny” Lister. Aside from a few high-profile roles such as Little John in Ridley Scott’s meandering epic snooze-fest Robin Hood and Vasily Fett in the FX series The Strain he has largely been confined to the character actor ghetto of henchmen, exposition-spewing bartenders, creeps, assholes, and creepy assholes.
But Durand has finally been called up out of the minor leagues to headline his own movie, albeit a small budget limited release horror movie. The movie is Dark Was the Night and it’s directed by Jack Heller and written by Tyler Hisel.
Durand plays Paul Shields, the Sheriff of a small town called Maiden Woods. Shields is in the midst of a mental and emotional breakdown due to the accidental death of his son a mere six months prior to this movie. He blames himself for the incident, though seemingly no-one else does, and it has caused him to question his capability as a caretaker, a father, a husband, a peace officer, and a human being. The desolation in his heart has caused him to become alienated from everyone he knows including his wife and remaining young child.
It is in the midst of this emotional crisis that Shields is faced with the greatest challenge of his life: something has come to Maiden Woods. It starts small with pets disappearing and a lack of wildlife in the area, then one morning a set of hoofed footprints left by an apparently bipedal creature is found meandering through town for three miles out into the forest where they abruptly end. Strange things start to happen, shadowy figures are seen and heard in the woods at night, large claw marks are found on buildings, birds flee in a mass exodus, and finally people start being slaughtered. By the time Shields even has an idea what he’s dealing with, it’s too late as a bad storm blows in and he’s forced to make a stand and protect the people of his town against the menace in the woods.
I, like many others on this website and its message board community, am a tremendous fan of Kevin Durand and when I heard he was getting his own movie I was excited. This movie absolutely is wonderful, but I think you need to temper your expectations to avoid disappointment. The problem isn’t so much what Dark Was the Night is, so much as what it isn’t.
Dark Was the Night isn’t a horror-comedy. There’s not a moment of levity, save a small bit where Shields and his wife have a parent-teacher conference about their son, and comparisons to other small town vs. monster movies such as The Blob, The Nest, Eight Legged Freaks, Tremors, Slither, and the like paint a picture of a movie that just isn’t representative of what Dark Was the Night is. While the set-up certainly is reminiscent of Tremors, the tone is more akin to 30 Days of Night from the serious tone, to the calm-before-the-storm build, all the way to the blue-filtered wind-blown aesthetic of a town on the verge of a rough winter about to be faced with a threat that it is in no way prepared for.
Discussions are all based around the situation at hand, Shield’s lack of confidence and family drama, and existential exchanges about fate between Shields and his deputy (played by Lukas Haas.) At times this seriousness becomes overbearing and tedious and stops just shy of slipping into parody.
Dark Was the Night isn’t a creature feature. This movie isn’t about the monster, it’s about Paul Shields and his journey from broken man to protector and as such there’s basically no gore, not a lot of deaths, and very little in the way of special effects.
There is a monster and it’s revealed slowly and gradually with the deliberate care of the shark in Jaws, for the exact same reason. The monster doesn’t look great, many who have seen this complain about the CG used in its brief full appearance but the fact is a practical version of this monster would still be pretty underwhelming as well. It’s rather reptilian which is a strange choice for a monster of apparently natural origin living in the Northeastern United States.
A Not-Google search by Shields midway through the film implies that this creature (or others like it) was the basis for the myths of the Jersey Devil and the Wendigo (two of cinema’s most under-utilized monsters in this writer’s opinion) which is a really neat angle and the reveal doesn’t spoil the tense atmosphere that the build-up has created, it’s just a weak moment (literally a few seconds) in the third act.
While the potboiler nature of this film impressed me on a level that few modern horror movies have, it’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea and if you find yourself staring at your watch when nothing truly scary has happened in a while then this just may not be for you. In truth, the script isn’t very strong here and the plot is almost razor thin, the monster doesn’t look great, and the characters really have more of an illusion of depth than anything. So what is there to love?
Well first of all, this is a really well-built film. Frequent Jim Mickle callaborator Ryan Samul is in charge of cinematography and brings his very striking visuals to help establish that dusky cold look that so perfectly captures the mood of a small rural town in the chilly days between the end of fall and the beginning of winter where the sun seems to shine more dimly and everything seems to be dead. It’s a spooky and magical canvas for a horror movie to be painted on and Samul lays this solid foundation that helps the movie to stand strong even when it’s story structure doesn’t.
Jack Heller does a fine job as director, motivating even his weaker actors into capable performances though it’s largely the actors themselves which elevate the material beyond the direct-to-video shelf warmer this movie could be. Kevin Durand shows that he is absolutely capable of carrying a movie on his shoulders. From the first frame we see him, Paul Shields looks on the verge of crumpling into a ball and crying. He looks tired, shell-shocked, and beaten down. Unspilled tears lurk at the corners of his eyes for most of the movie and you can practically feel the despair radiating off of him like heat. Yet when Shields is allowed to have a moment of happiness, of mirth or pride, Durand brings that out in a real and believable way. You can feel the love for his family, the protectiveness he feels for his town, the friendship he feels for his partner. It all comes across in a very human way that feels more natural than the sometimes stilted dialogue should allow.
Durand could carry this movie on his shoulders, but he doesn’t have to. Lukas Haas has had a very eclectic career from overly-cute child actor to surprisingly adept adult actor who never did manage to grow into those ears. Haas’ chacter, Donny Saunders, is a former New York City cop who was shot in the line of duty and sought out a quieter place to be a peace officer. Donny and Shields have the best rapport of anyone in the movie, you can see that they trust and depend upon one another fully and that they’re friends despite the fact that they’ve only worked together a short time. Donny is Shield’s support literally, emotionally, and as a character. Haas really brings a fully-functioning human out of what basically amounts to a sidekick character.
Writer/Actor Nick Damici turns up in a thankless role as an exposition-spewing bartender who, of course, has Native American ancestry and a vague idea of what our heroes are dealing with. Damici is delightful in whatever he’s in but this is yet another role that he is vastly overqualified for.
My one major complaint has to do with the ending, which I won’t spoil other than to say that it feels wrong. If this were a horror comedy I think it would work but even though it makes sense in the context of the movie, it kind of undermines the entire message of the story and feels mean. As with the monster, it’s not a ruination of everything that the movie has been up until that point, but it’s detrimental to the film as a whole.
Dark Was the Night is not a big or spectacular movie. The writing and story aren’t great and neither are the special effects, but the atmosphere and the performers all bring their A-game and create a very creepy and enjoyable movie after a fashion. There are certainly better movies out there, but for a production of this caliber it really is a triumph and I hope it helps Kevin Durand’s career continue to grow into what it deserves to be.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars