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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Dark Haul (Blu-ray)
Dark Haul (Blu-ray)
Shout Factory // Unrated // March 10, 2015 // Region A
List Price: $24.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted February 28, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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I'll say this, Guy Who Designed the Artwork for Dark Haul: you did your job, and you did it well. It's probably been twenty years since I last picked up a new release just because I was entranced by its cover art. You give me a winged demon riding atop a beaten-to-hell big rig, with the searing flames of a fallen metropolis in the rear view mirror, and I crack open my wallet. Totally fair exchange. Seriously, if there were a poster out there somewhere, it'd be framed and staring back at me right now. The $64,000 question -- or, well, the $24.97 MSRP question -- is whether or not Dark Haul lives up to its epic cover art. The answer, alas, is "no". It's not for a lack of trying, though.

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An ancient order braced themselves for the prophecized birth of the thirteenth child of a thirteenth child, ushering a monstrous evil onto this mortal coil. Part of the problem is that they didn't arrive in time to adequatedly prepare the incantations to destroy this abomination; the best they could do on such short order is contain it. The other problem is...well, what do you do when the Antichrist is born, and they're twins? Over the nearly three hundred years that follow, The Keepers never really figure out an answer beyond "keep 'em caged". The sisterly half of the equation, Zib (Evalena Marie), can pass for human so long as her inhibator shackle is up and running. Zib is saddled with the role of telepathically soothing her hellspawned brother, a winged beast you might know better by the handle of the Jersey Devil. Zib has a kind enough heart to want to keep her brother safe and the body count as low as possible. Sometimes that gets her the white glove treatment from her captors, but she never forgets that she's a prisoner. When Zib steps out of line, her shackle pumps her full of I don't know how many tens of thousands of volts of electricity, all with the Keepers' press a button. When the Jersey Devil breaks free, fuhgettaboutit. You'll see what he wants you to see...hear what he wants you to hear, not only ensuring that he can make good his escape but invariably putting some poor bastard in someone else's crosshairs. He quite literally feeds on chaos.

Over the three centuries that have passed, the beast has grown so powerful that he can no longer be contained at the Keepers' current prison of choice. There's hope a couple states over in Pennsylvania, home to the nation's oldest consecrated ground. The trick is figuring out how to safely transport him there, and...well, now you know why this movie goes by the name "Monster Truck" in other parts of the world. Eastbound and down -- or, okay, westbound and up -- loaded up and truckin'. The Keepers do have a long way to go and a short time to get there, and the Jersey Devil doesn't make it easy for 'em. The creature uses his hallucinatory talents to wreak an endless amount of havoc along the way, and infighting among the Keepers soon swings in favor of Knicks (Tom Sizemore), who thinks he's finally found a way to kill the Wonder Twins dead permanently. 'Course, it wouldn't be much of a movie if things were that simple...

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Dark Haul is overstuffed with its own mythology and lore, coming across as if first-time screenwriter Ben Crane envisioned something larger in size and scope than an extremely low-budget, 87 minute movie on basic cable could ever hope to match. There's a lot going on here, and I respect that Dark Haul aims so much higher than your average SyFy Original. Some of it works, and...yeah, some of it, not so much. I'm intrigued by the concept of a prisoner with similar goals as her captors, working alongside them in chains no matter how much they may scowl at her. Even though I cringed everytime the movie called them "halo"s, the cacklingly dark ways in which the creature's hallucinations toy with perception really make the movie what it is. Maybe to an even greater extent than last summer's Oculus, there are some brilliantly dark, depraved fake-outs that get a huge reaction when the illusion is dropped. Dark Haul doesn't cleanly divide the cast into white hats and black hats. Zib is the protagonist, sure, and while she does try to minimize the number of corpses in her brother's wake, she makes enough destructive decisions that she couldn't rightly be called a heroine. The Keepers are a group divided. There are those who honor its traditions and try to maintain the status quo, while others feel that three hundred years are enough and that it's long past time to put an end to the Antichrist Twins. Nearly everyone has a reasonable perspective, and that's a hell of a lot more interesting than cowboys vs. Indians. Even the Jersey Devil isn't portrayed as any sort of archvillain. He's more a force of nature, ravaging everyone and everything in his path. That's also a stumbling block, dramatically. Other than "...but he's my brother!", what motivation is there for Zib to be so protective of him? He doesn't speak, he has no discernable personality, he's beyond reason or redemption: he's a monster. I sympathize with the kinship and shared persecution, but it compels Zib to do things for her beastly brother that are way beyond the pale and make it impossible to root for her.

Lugging around reams and reams of pages of backstory and mythology that Dark Haul desperately wants you to commit to memory, the opening stretch of the movie is offputtingly infodump-y. With the constraints it's working in, it might've been a wiser decision to better streamline the concept or more deftly dole out all of this. There's a lot going on throughout Dark Haul, leaving some elements underutilized -- the truck isn't nearly the focal point the cover art and title suggest -- and others sloppily introduced. Knicks mentions fairly early on that he believes their reliquary is well-stocked enough to slay the seemingly immortal siblings, but it's not mentioned until near the end that, oh, yeah, he's just talking about one enchanted knife that'll do the job. Zib's muddled motivations lost me somewhere in the second act. For a movie whose premise hinges on what may be the end of days, there's shockingly little urgency to damn near anything going on here. A colossal shootout in a diner, for instance, winds up feeling awfully tepid and is entirely devoid of any intensity. On one hand, a jackknifing stunt with the truck looks terrific, and there are several titanic explosions. There's a reason that the Jersey Devil only appears in shadow on the flipside of the case, though. The practical creature effects are rubbery and unconvincing, and the digital effects can be howlingly inept. Too many of the performances have that big, broad, local theatre troupe feel to them, with even the more accomplished actors struggling with some of the dialogue. The direction by freshman filmmaker Daniel Wise is serviceable but nothing particularly memorable. I don't know how much of Dark Haul was shot in sequence, but the early moments of the movie do feel like there's a lot of throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks experimentation with the camerawork.

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Dark Haul really does get a lot right. It has ambition to spare, and clearly an immense amount of thought and care went into crafting its mythology. It's all just more than a movie with these limitations can muster. The finished product is the sort of thing that might be worth watching on SyFy or maybe even renting/streaming. Dark Haul isn't nearly satisfying enough to warrant a purchase, with even its admirers likely to be disappointed with its bare metal release on Blu-ray. Rent It.


Video
Dark Haul's visuals are kind of all over the place, generally boiling down to how much light the camera gets to play with from moment to moment. One minute, you'll be treated to a shot that's startlingly detailed and exceptionally well-defined:

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...while the next will look fuzzier and swarming with noise:

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Sometimes that video noise is more than the AVC encode can handle. You can see this strain in the screenshot below, including some unwelcome chroma noise:

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The encoder seems to struggle somewhat with the crimson red of the truck as well; pretty much every shot of it in motion looks kind of unstable. There's also an odd jitter as the camera pulls back around the 4:45 mark, but I couldn't spot anything quite like that elsewhere throughout the movie. Anyway, Dark Haul looks okay on Blu-ray. As inconsistent and kind of rough-hewn as it is, there's still never any doubt that I'm watching a proper high definition release, and that's really what I'm looking for in discs like this. Keep your expectations in check, and you're good to go.

The rest of the technical bullet points are pretty much what you'd expect for a fresh-offa-SyFy production on Blu-ray: aspect ratio of 1.78:1, AVC encode, and a BD-25 disc.


Audio
The flipside of the case only mentions a stereo DTS-HD Master Audio track. They're not wrong -- there is a straightahead stereo mix on this Blu-ray disc -- but a lossless 5.1 soundtrack is riding shotgun as well. It's a reasonably solid one at that, at least when grading on a SyFy Original curve. Hellish growls, frantic bursts of gunfire, shrapnel flying every which way, and even comparatively subtle atmospherics: Dark Haul frequently and effectively seizes hold of the surrounds. It's less certain what to do with the lower frequencies, though. As well-reinforced as explosions are in the rear channels, they barely coax a belch out of the subwoofer. One of the actors on the bill has a voice so gravelly that it sounds like he's been gargling hot asphalt, and I'm a little disappointed that there isn't a bassier growl to his dialogue. The score is no great shakes, alternating between banks of tinny keyboards and endlessly repeated bursts of a couple notes, and it's not reproduced with any real force or intensity. I'm sure it was the same deal when Dark Haul was making the rounds on SyFy, though. Every element of the mix is balanced well enough, and there aren't any glaring technical flaws worth noting. Not the most dazzlingly cinematic audio I've ever heard, no, and the limited dynamic range is a drag, but Dark Haul's lossless audio still manages to get the job done.

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Both soundtracks are 24-bit, for anyone keeping track at home. Also included is a set of English (SDH) subtitles.


Extras
Just a two minute high-def trailer. Dark Haul does comes packaged in a flat slipcover if you feel like counting that as a bonus.


The Final Word
Dark Haul has the makings of something pretty spectacular: its moral ambiguity, its involved lore, the devious way it toys with perception and reality, and a devoted sister who struggles with her roles as both a captor (of sorts) and captive. The premise screams out for more than a low-budget, eightysomeodd minute SyFy Original can realistically deliver. The end result is too uneven to recommend with all that much enthusiasm, and Dark Haul isn't exactly the sort of movie that demands to be watched more than once. If you've gotta see Dark Haul, my vote would be to Rent It.
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