Retro Review: DARK SKIES (2013){0}

It doesn’t take a genius to combine the basic trappings of a standard “haunted house” story with the well-worn convention of “alien invasions,” but it’s nice to see that some filmmakers are still willing to give it a shot. Although clearly inspired by the recent and endless litany of paranormal-centric horror flicks and a big handful of science fiction films you’ve probably already seen, Scott Stewart’s Dark Skies still works perfectly well as a turn-off-the-lights (and be-willing-to-play-along) piece of sci-fi-sprinkled horror amusement.

Those who were turned off by the overt wackiness of Stewart’s previous films (2009’s Legion and 2011’s Priest) may be pleasantly surprised to note that he does a rather professional job of bringing a dash of Poltergeist and a smidgen of Close Encounters to his generally (very) familiar tale of suburban invasion. (Hey, at least the guy borrows from good movies.) And while I hate to keep doling out what sound like backhanded compliments, there’s always something to be said for a filmmaker who tries a new direction and finds some degree of success. Much of Dark Skies feels like a rather simple made-for-TV production, but I say there’s always room for another “basic” genre mix-up that simply wants to deliver a few well-earned jolts and jitters to a willing audience.   

The premise truly couldn’t be much simpler: mom (Keri Russell), dad (Josh Hamilton), and two young sons start to realize that something seriously bizarre is going on inside their house — kitchen products like to move around on their own, for example — but neither the local cops nor the home security experts can figure it out. It’s almost as if… something can walk right through walls! (dun dun dunnnn) The youngest son, in rather predictable fashion, has a few dream-clouded clues as to who the intruder is, but of course we’ll still need three or four more crazy occurrences (including a rather nifty sequence involving suicidal birds) to stretch Dark Skies into a feature-length film.    

Fortunately the film does offer some assets to counter-balance the almost painfully familiar premise: leads Russell and Hamilton are actually quite strong, bringing a warmth and low-key believability, even if their characters are thinly-drawn and forced to wander through some rather rote proceedings. Dad’s out of work, for example, and the older son is just discovering girls. Hardly anything scintillating, screenplay-wise, but both subplots build the characters up rather well. I also appreciated how Stewart managed to keep tricks like “fake jump scares” and dream sequences to a bare minimum. It always helps when a viewer can actually “trust” the action on the screen.    

Other assets include a surprisingly crisp look (kudos to cinematographer David Boyd), an admirable sense of restraint (and even some legitimate suspense!) in the flick’s creepiest moments, and a very welcome appearance by JK Simmons (as the oddball expert who explains everything in very handy fashion near the end)… basically, Dark Skies is a perfectly serviceable weekend rental for people who like horror and sci-fi in equal measure, and are in the mood for something new but familiar, and creepy but not too scary. Given its relatively quick moments of actual horror — and its surprisingly effective themes about the importance of family — Dark Skies would actually make for a reasonably solid “family night” horror option. And we can always use a few decent chillers that are OK for kids.