The Barretts are in the middle of a rough patch: while Lacy (Keri Russell) struggles to sell houses around their suburban neighborhood, namely fixer-upper opportunities, her unemployed husband, Daniel (Josh Hamilton), hunts for a coveted architecture position at a time when the pickings are slim. As lack-of-payment notices keep rolling in and their financial struggles hamper their relationship, strange events start happening in their house in the middle of the night, from items disappearing to trash piles and bizarre sculptures forming in their kitchen. Believed to be a result of vandals or, maybe, their two sons (Dakota Goyo; Kadan Rockett) acclimating to the strained family situation, the events become even more bizarre in nature amid dying birds and ringing in the ears, suggesting that there might be something more supernatural behind what's going on. Dark Skies builds its suspense around an explanation to this other-worldly phenomenon, asking whether such a thing is even possible ...
It's tough to figure out exactly what to say about Scott Stewart's (Legion, Priest) agitated, earsplitting horror outing, a gradual burn of mystery and family discord that tinkers with the terror in conspiracy theories and what looms in the expanse beyond our comprehension. Moments in Dark Skies induce jumps on a purely superficial level, where fear of the unknown creeps into a suburban house by way of a peculiar sequence of events. Others made me laugh harder than I have with many recent comedies, and I'm still not entirely sure whether or not that was intentional. In any event, shallow novelty becomes the reason why someone might want to explore this mash-up of Poltergeist and a M. Night Shyamalan joint, because a successful film it's not; a lack of connection with the family and erratic performances prevent it from working on any deeper level. Whether a few well-telegraphed jolts and some bizarre accidental humor are enough to justify the time spent will be up to those watching.
Writer/director Stewart really works to make the audience care about this family, too, so it's unfortunate to see that fail to translate. Spastic overreactions and awkward spurts with their kids kept me at arm's length from Lucy and Daniel, where Keri Russell's edginess and Josh Hamilton's twitchy persona build into an unstable couple with no chemistry. And it's not the good kind of instability and lack of chemistry that heighten atmosphere either, rendering them into misshapen people dealing with a peculiar situation -- as well as dealing with a rebellious older son with an annoying trouble-maker friend. Their responses occasionally elevate the tension on a base level, sure; Russell's angular face and wide eyes convey strain well enough, while Josh Hamilton's shifty expressions from behind a nine-o'clock shadow uptick our suspicions. But as the parents of children experiencing an invasion of their home, it merely goes through the motions to focus on the mystery and never evolves into the harrowing experience it needs to be, about a family whom we're intended to care about.
Dark Skies tries to compensate for that lack of a deeper connection with brute-force provocation of the senses, and director's Stewart execution of raw tensio allows the film to maintain a creepy, hostile atmosphere. A lot of loud and occasionally obnoxious noises claim most of the responsibility, from the sound of a bird smacking against glass to other-worldly rumbles whenever something bizarre pops up onscreen. There are chilling moments in the mix, mostly around the object of the mystery that the family are rushing to discover, which are surprisingly effective for a smaller-purposed PG-13 flick such as this. Alas, it also can't avoid some unintentionally funny circumstances and delivery, namely around body horror designed for shivers and shocks; birds aren't the only things that enigmatically slam into window panes. Honestly, it's hard to tell which sensations were more prominent: the elementary frights behind enigmatic -- maybe monstrous -- house prowlers, or unintentional laughs.
Despite a halfway interesting B-movie premise, with the mystery revealed in ways expected from some of the minds behind Sinister and Insidious, Stewart's jittery film unravels in a plodding and prolonged stream of tension after an "expert" drops necessary info in the Barrets' lap. J.K. Simmons enlivens the part of a weathered, powerless authority in the field of the supernatural, where his delivers lines like "That's what they want you to think" with the straight, weary face of someone who's beyond the point of understanding. What his revelations lead to, however, is a frustrating final act of sonic onslaughts and contrived developments -- filled with guns, dogs, wide eyes, and family morale in a domestic war-zone -- that liberally borrow from its influences, hampered by a deft sense of helplessness that isn't backed up with much of a convincing reason. A degree of dread builds around what happens to the Barrets, sure, that trepidation over what terrors might exist outside our viewable scope, but it trips into the pitfalls of mundane shock-value when it loudly stumbles around the purpose behind their torment.
Video and Audio:
Dark Skies bustles around the vibrant sunshine and dim shadows of Suburbia for its 2.35:1-framed digitally-shot cinematography, smoothly transferred here by Anchor Bay into a detailed, colorful, atmospheric 1080p Blu-ray treatment. Scenes in the Barrets' breakfast room and around pools emphasize rich skin tones and suitable details, though the reserved and flatter depth present in digital photography occasionally -- very occasionally -- limits the photography's crispness. Close-ups present some of the finer examples of high-definition precision, where the scrunches and shock in Keri Russell's angular face convey her distress with smooth contours and natural skin textures. The scenes at night are more complex and eerie, often dominated by overbearing shadows that, thankfully, still allow slight details in darker corners to emerge. Though not without moments of grainy, flat contrast, it's a suitably clean visual treatment of a digital source.
The film's most characteristic and commanding feature is its sonic forcefulness, engulfing those watching in a 5.1 Master Audio track that determinedly rattles the senses with punchy activity. At first, the surround design allows for slight activity to wrap around the audience, such as the whistling of birds outdoors and the ambience of an empty house. Slowly, though, more aggressive elements test the aural treatment's threshold: the slam of a bird against a window, the high-pitched tone that slips into the mix, and the shrill sound of an alarm going off in the house. These are often hostile, well-pitched elements that the Blu-ray's tracks replicates with a deft hand, rattling the lower-frequency track in some jumpy aural displays and flutters of musical eeriness. Alongside that, the dialogue stays suitable centered and aware of the suburban environments, where no dialogue goes without clearly being heard. Say what you will about the LOUD NOISES, but Anchor Bay delivers them with might.
The sole in-depth feature that Anchor Bay has granted Dark Skies is an Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Scott Stewart and Crew, where they indulge curiosity on a scene-by-scene basis in a insightful, yet conversational tone. The tactics they used to get their "nighttime" photography is revealed, including how they manipulated light sources, while they also discuss this being Keri Russell's first genre film and her nervousness before shooting certain scenes. Stewart and his crew also dig into how they used both practical and digital effects for certain volatile sequences, as well as how they let sound effects do the talking instead of the music commanding the tone. Furthermore, they also discuss the similarities between comedy and suspense in terms of timing, capped off with how the repetitious rhythm of the film was, indeed, intentional, as well as name-dropping classics like Don't Look Now in their discussion. It's a solid, forward-moving track from a crew of enthusiastic filmmakers.
A series of Deleted Scenes (14:22, HD) are also available along with optional commentary, which are filled with more loud buzzing noises and eeriness that are mostly inconsequential edits in terms of the overarching story -- more atmospheric embellishments than anything else, really. Disc Two is a full DVD copy of the film, complete with the same special features.
Neither engaging on a level beyond the surface nor original enough to make its more intense heartbeats count, the repetition of punchy noises and spastic family moments in Dark Skies are what's left to lead it through drawn-out supernatural suspense and edgy physical gags. Resulting in an experience that's partly entertaining, in ways both intended and not, certain high-anxiety bursts might cause a jump or two as the answers emerge to the Barrets' eerie nightmare in suburbia. Keri Russell wears wide-eyed tension surprisingly well, and director Scott Stewart's ability to create an electric atmosphere with meager means is to be applauded. What's missing, though, is a personal investment to the family and their situation, which causes the film to drag and stumble once the mystery is unveiled -- by a properly static J.K. Simmons as the "weird stuff expert" -- and combative measures are taken against their ... uh, assailants. Anchor Bay's Blu-ray is rather strong, though, so it'll make for a worthwhile Rental.