There are times when I think that the horror genre is a club that’s slowly trying to exclude me because I’m not afraid of children. In the past six months I have reviewed three underwhelming horror movies that used creepy children to spook audiences, but with each one I was left pleading for studios to find another trope to run into the ground. Instead I get Dark Skies, or as I like to call it, “Number Four.”
Unlike The Posession, Sinister and Mama, at the very least writer/director Scott Stewart’s new film trades demons and spirits for aliens, but doesn’t do much more than put a sci-fi twist on a plot device that has sincerely worn out its welcome. It’s not hard to see what the filmmaker was trying to do with the story; the problem is that it fails in execution.
The film stars Kerri Russell and Josh Hamilton as parents of two kids (Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett) who are dealing with the usual suburban family problems when they begin to experience strange events that could be the work of extraterrestrial forces. Of course, it’s the children that have the most direct contact with the otherworldly beings and come to harm as a result. To his credit, Stewart broaches on interesting themes and social conflicts, like innocent parents being suspected of abusing their children, but anything even remotely interesting is dragged down by the languid pace and overuse of clichés. How many more times do I have to see a stoic youngster draw a crude crayon drawing of their spooky invisible friend?
Dark Skies isn’t a found footage film, but it uses a very similar story structure to the Paranormal Activity films and succeeds in being just as boring. Each night Russell’s character wakes from her sleep, walks around the house and discovers something weird. The next day they deal with the weirdness, call the proper authorities, and try and figure out what’s going wrong while the youngest son acts strange and talks about the Sandman visiting him at night. This pattern is repeated multiple times with each night escalating the situation and therefore the drama between family members. It doesn’t take long to see the structure and it gets old fast.
Slow as it may be, the film shows some flashes of subtlety. While Stewart has a long background in visual effects he keeps them to a minimum here, taking the Jaws approach and understands that sometimes less is more. The film does occasionally take a heavier-handed approach to scares, such as scenes where small birds suicide bomb the family’s home and Russell gets put into a trance and bashes her head against a sliding glass door (which comes across as absurd more than frightening), but sometimes you have to appreciate convention being bent when it’s not being broken.
In the film’s second act the parents go to visit an alien expert played by J.K. Simmons who proceeds to give them a test to see if they are legitimately experiencing extraterrestrial contact. As he reads off the list of strange events and the parents begin to nod and share worried expressions you begin to realize that this was the same list that the writer/director got his hands on before writing the script and used it to structure the film. But while Dark Skies may live up to “Believer” codes, that doesn’t make it an entertaining time at the cinema.