You know a horror film is effective when it remains creepy even after they explain the unexplained phenomena. On that front, and on many others, “Dark Skies” emerges as a smart little chiller, one that can be read as a metaphor for the American family in crisis during tough economic times or merely as a tense exploration of things that go bump in the night.
We can only wonder what possessed the folks at Dimension Films to hide this movie from critics, thus creating the impression that it was a stinker. On the contrary, it’s that rare film that takes its time ratcheting up the tension without ever feeling draggy or overlong. After the much less successful “Priest” and “Legion,” it appears that writer-director Scott Stewart has finally found his groove as a genre filmmaker.
It’s a tense time for suburbanites Daniel (Josh Hamilton) and Lacy (Keri Russell); he’s an out-of-work architect trying desperately to land a new gig, but in the meantime, the bills are piling up, with only Lacy’s paycheck as a real estate agent keeping them and their two sons Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and Sam (Kadan Rockett) afloat.
The two brothers communicate via walkie-talkie after bedtime, sharing spooky stories of monsters from outer space who invade the earth to steal people’s eyes. These tales get a little scarier when strange things start happening around the house — one night, there’s a mysterious kitchen intruder, then someone makes an elaborate sculpture that reflects light patterns on the ceiling, and on another night, all the family photos are stolen from their frames.
Local cops think the kids are playing pranks, but Sam knows that the sandman he sees in his dreams is responsible for the ever-escalating mayhem. As the financially strapped Daniel and Lacy invest in security systems, more and more strange events happen, leading them to understand that their entire family is in danger.
Smart movies can take subject matter we’ve seen a million times and make it feel fresh and exciting, and after a spate of haunted-house tales, it’s refreshing to discover that such an old standby can still deliver the scares. It helps that “Dark Skies” firmly establishes its human element before getting into the paranormal; Russell and Hamilton are strong enough actors to play married people with problems in a straight-ahead drama, and they bring a reality to both the mundane and the bizarre aspects of the story.
Their lead performances are bolstered by Goyo and Rockett, who also establish a level of believability as regular people that encourages us to stay tethered to them when the story leaps into the unreal. J.K. Simmons brings his usual gruff gravitas in a cameo as an outsider who offers sage advice to the family at a key juncture.
There are any number of moments when “Dark Skies” could have pivoted from suspenseful to ridiculous, and it’s a testament to Stewart and his cast that the film remains on the right path. In a genre that so rarely delivers what it promises, this horror flick never lets up on the jolts.