When I heard that Paul Soter of Broken Lizard fame was making a horror movie, I assumed it would be a horror-comedy along the lines of his troupe's Club Dread. As it turns out, I was completely off base. With Dark Circles, the latest entry in the After Dark Originals series, Soter has turned in a legitimate exercise in psychological horror. The resolution is far from effective and there are a few logical missteps along the way but this film still does a decent job of establishing Soter's ambitions in a field far removed from his merry band of brothers.
After a genuinely creepy and unsettling opening sequence, Soter introduces us to our leads Penny (Pell James) and Alex (Johnathon Schaech). The lovebirds have a baby on the way and are looking to move to the peaceful countryside, far from the hustle and bustle of the city. Well, Penny is looking forward to it while Alex is quietly worrying about leaving behind the life he knows and accepting weighty new responsibilities. Before you know it, they've become the parents of a cute baby boy and find themselves moving all their belongings into a quiet suburban home.
Unfortunately, the silence doesn't last long when they discover that new homes are being built all around them. With the incessant noise of the construction crews during the day and the weeping of their infant at night, they slowly turn into insomniac zombies who can't stop sniping at each other. Minor arguments escalate into major shouting matches as Penny turns possessive of their child and Alex gets frustrated about being unable to do his work. Not helping this volatile situation is the fact that the house appears to be haunted by a female spirit who has an unhealthy interest in the littlest member of the family. In order for Penny and Alex to save their baby, they will have to do something that has become increasingly challenging: Stay Awake.
With this film, Soter approaches a subject that not many horror movies trouble themselves with: the fear of inadequacy possessed by new parents. This is material that is perfect for a small-scale thriller which is why the film's first act holds so much promise. Unfortunately the problems start soon after. Penny and Alex go from glowing parents to bickering adversaries in no time flat as the lack of sleep starts to unravel them. While I hate to suggest a solution as glib as ‘earplugs', there is no denying the fact that our protagonists encounter a problem and immediately fold. They resign themselves to being at the mercy of the construction crew and don't even bother thinking of any possible alternatives. I realize this would make for a very short movie but it also highlights just how fixable one of the film's major conflicts is.
There's also the matter of the female entity that is lurking about their house. While the film piles on the jump scares, leading viewers down a specific path that past horror movies have conditioned us to expect, the finale switches things up with a twist that I won't be spoiling here. Suffice it to say that a predictable but logical (for a horror movie anyway) ending is tossed out in favor of one that is silly and laughable. Realism can be annoying when it flies in the face of all that has already been established. Although the denouement of the ghost story isn't satisfying, it does feature a few decent scares in its buildup. There's a nail-biting sequence featuring a spunky babysitter (Jennifer Foreman) that definitely delivers the goods.
Even though the film has a muddled central conflict and can't really stick its landing, I'm not willing to write it off. The deficiencies in Soter's script are partially offset by his sharp eye for visuals and a pair of committed performances. Pell James and Johnathon Schaech absolutely sell the parts of the frazzled parents. Watching them lash out at each other as they start to come undone is distressing on a very basic level. Having a stranglehold on your viewer's sympathy is essential to the success of a film like this. Soter, aided by James and Schaech, achieves this with ease. He also accomplishes the difficult task of milking baby-in-peril situations (of which there are a few doozies) for all their tension without coming off as exploitative.
Soter's horror debut may not be entirely successful but it certainly makes me want to watch more horror films by him…that has to count for something. He already has a solid command of how to generate suspense with his visuals. Now, he just needs those visuals to be in service of a story that can stand up from start to finish.