Jolts, Noise, and Chuckles Loom in Stewart's 'Dark Skies'

Directed by: Scott Stewart; Runtime: 97 minutes
Grade: C-

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.

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