Dark Was the Night (2014): Kevin Durand & Lukas Haas Kill It

Kevin Durand Lukas Haas

Written by Tyler Hisel and directed by Jack Heller Dark Was the Night is a slow moody piece that gives stars Kevin Durand and Lukas Haas star turns. It also boasts a pretty impressive cast of secondary characters with Nick Damici (Stake Land, Cold in July) and Bianca Kajlich (Rules of Engagement, Undateable) to name but too very capable actors who round out the cast.  Set in the dwindling forests of small town America, the film feels a little like a real-life version of  Ferngully: The Last Rainforest but with razor sharp teeth and a voracious appetite.

While there are no fairies or small magical creatures, this film’s “Hexxus” is just as natural as the element in the ecological message a’la animated feature (with Christian Slater and Robin Williams), but lacks Tim Curry’s voice to make it seem more identifiable. In Heller’s film, this entity is big, mostly unseen, and fast. The creature has  thrice-spilt hooves  and razor sharp claws and later we also learn it has razor sharp teeth as well.

Set against around a small rural township, the film begins with the creature being discovered at a logging camp. It claims its first victims and then moves south. The local sheriff 20 miles away first learns of the migrating monster from a local horse breeder. Paul Shields (Durand) and his deputy Donny Saunders (Haas) investigate somewhat half-heartedly  the disappearance of one horse as they believe the breeder left a gate open and his horse escaped. The owner believes the horse was stolen.  Later we learn it was most likely eaten.

Shields’ mind is not on day-to-day policing of his town and its people. A recent tragedy, his sone drowns while under his care, and he and his wife, and other son, are struggling to deal with the loss. With his whole world in tatters, the sheriff is almost sleepwalking through his duties.

Durand, as Shields, looks as though he will burst into painful and heartfelt tears of grief at any moment. The man evokes so much inner torment that one wonders how he is able to operate on any level. Donny, the erstwhile former New Yorker who transferred to the country keeps an eye  on his boss while trying to get over being shot back in the Big Apple.

Canadian actor Durand is usual associated with action roles, although he has been knocking it out of the park with the FX series The Strain  as exterminator Vasiliy Fet.  His performance in this slow atmospheric horror thriller, proves that this actor’s chops are massive enough to leave the action genre behind if he so choses.

Co-star Haas, who has been working in the industry since 1983, is no stranger to the horror genre and his solid, and oh so real, performance helps to sell this film’s events without question.

Heller films his external day-time scenes with hues of blue saturating every frame.  This makes the film’s setting appear even colder and all the more disturbing as the unfolding events slowly build up to an unsettling climax.  The night time sequences are pitch black, leaving the viewer as disoriented as the main characters must be in the scene.

The pacing of the film is slow, moving forward at the speed of an arthritic crawl, but the sense of foreboding is overpowering and helps to keep suspense building despite the almost crippling lack of adrenaline.  This slowness does enhance the more intense moments.

When the hunters encounter the creature in the woods or when the police find the remains of the “monster’s” feeding frenzies, it shocks and impresses.  This film is not about jump scares and serial killers with large knives or alien races attempting mass genocide with buckets of gore.

It is a campfire tale, with a touch of  cautionary parable mixed in for good measure.  As Sheriff Shields points out in the film, this creature, disturbed by the loggers, is attempting to find another hiding place. With no place left to run, it feels threatened and is trying to claim a new territory. (Ferngully: The Last Rainforest but without the mysticism.)

The thing is also hungry.

Dark Was the Night,  proves that Kevin Durand can carry a film, with a little help from Lukas Haas, but this assistance was not really necessary. Durand convinces with a performance that feels tortured and full of pathos. Heller allows his star to channel his inner grief and it enhances the film beautifully.

The film is on US Netflix at the moment and is a solid 4 out of 5 star movie.  A whole star is lost because of the creature itself. When we finally see it, the thing feels more CGI than a real “once thought extinct” boogeyman.  Regardless of the “letdown” at the end this is great entertainment and worth watching.

Cold in July (2014): Innocence Lost

Michael C Hall and Sam Shepard in Cold in July
The 2014 film Cold in July is another offering from the team that brought you Stake Land and in a sense, this new film is also about innocence lost. In the first movie, that starred Damici, it is the young protagonist being trained by Mister who loses his, in the new film by the team of Nick Damici and Jim Mickle, it is Michael C. Hall’s character Richard Dane who falls.

Based upon Joe R Lonsdale’s 1989 novel of the same name, Cold in July stars Hall as a “everyman” who shoots an intruder in his house and his life begins a rollercoaster trip of twists and turns that change his world. Initially he is stalked and threatened by the ex-con father of the man he killed, Mr. Russell, played by Sam Shepard, and he turns to his friend on the local police force Ray Price (Nick Damici) for help.

The police catch Russell and tell Richard that the man is back in prison. When Dane is at the police station, he sees a wanted poster with the name of the man he shot; the picture on the bill looks nothinglike the dead man. The frame shop owner tries to question Price about the discrepancy and the detective blows him off. Heading down to the station, he sees the police taking Russell out of jail. They put him on train tracks, inject him and leave him to be killed by an oncoming train. Dane saves the man and puts him in his late father’s cabin.

The two men dig up the man Dane shot and Russell learns that the body in the coffin is not his son. Russell calls a friend from Houston, Jim Bob (Don Johnson) who comes to help his Korean War comrade. It turns out that Russell’s son worked for the Dixie mafia and turned state’s evidence. He is now under the witness protection program and the police are helping the man to disappear.

Shepard’s character wants Jim Bob to find his son and Richard volunteers to help. When the men find Freddy Russell, the film takes yet another darker turn and Dane gets in even deeper.

Hall plays a man who finds himself firmly immersed in the underbelly of southern crime. Porn films, snuff movies, the Dixie Mafia and wholesale bloodshed all leave the man shaken and changed by the end of the film. The arc for Richard Dane is a long and complex one. At the beginning when his neighbors are starring at the man who inadvertently killed an intruder in his home, Dane is uncomfortable with his notoriety.

“I didn’t mean to shoot him,” Richard says. When he shakingly loads his pistol, it is obvious that the man is nervous and scared. Later when he confronts the man in his living room, the clock striking is the trigger that makes him shoot. The camera shows the vividness of the victim’s blood and later focusses on the couple cleaning up the crime scene and revealing just how destructive death is.

Later on, when Dane joins up with Jim Bob and Russell Sr, he slowly gets acclimatized to weapons and being around them but he still hesitates to pull the trigger. A tendency that almost costs him his life and that of his two comrades. The film moves from what could have been a question of morality and the cost of taking another man’s life into a modern noir of grim proportion.

The hunting down of the con’s son and the discovery that Russell’s offspring is beyond evil is as shocking as the video tape that they take from the giant thug they encounter at Freddy’s house. All three of the male protagonists knock their performances out of the park. Shepard as Russell is a wraith, full of remorse, rage and deadly intentions. He does not suffer fools and his life has been harsh.

Dane has lived the existence of the small town businessman. He has a wife and child, is well thought of in the community and has never killed anyone before. His gradual descent into the hellish underworld of pornography and the Dixie mafia is shocking and Hall convinces that his character will never be the same again.

Don Johnson as the Houston private eye and war friend of Russell is bigger than life and plays Jim Bob as a jaded man who has seen it all and paid the price. One can easily imagine that Richard Dane knows exactly how both men feel at the end of the film.

As a genre, Jim Mickle and Nick Damici have placed Cold in July in a category that could be called Southern Gothic Noir. At 109 minutes, the movie moves at a good pace and never drags. Some sequences of the film feel a bit like Cape Fear but not for long. The shape and direction of the movie changes quickly soon after and the viewer is taken into unknown territory.

Michael C Hall is well known for his portrayal of the serial killer with a difference in Dexter. The actor has given a brilliant performance in this film and his fans will not be disappointed with his work on Cold in July. This is a real 5 out of 5 star film that enthralls from the first frame to the last. It is streaming on Showtime at the moment.

Stake Land (2010): Zombieland With Teeth

This is quite possibly the best post-apocalyptic film I have ever seen. Stake Land was co-written by Nick Damici (Mister in the film) and Jim Mickle (director) and it is brilliant piece of horror Americana.

Jim Mickle’s direction is practically flawless, he leaves no loose threads and at no time did the film meander. This was Mickle’s second feature length film and it is  for that reason alone that he shows so much promise. Nick Damici as another of the “Jobbing Actor” types that until now has never been given a decent enough role to show his talent. This man will leave a huge mark in the business. Connor Paolo (as Martin [and what a lovely touch, naming the lead actor after the ‘vampire’ in George A. Romero‘s cult classic]) Paolo has been working steadily since 2003 and it shows. He did a good job.

I was surprised and pleased to see Kelly McGillis as the Sister. She’s come a long way since Top Gun and she hasn’t lost anything in the acting department. Michael Cerveris played religious leader Jebidia.  He is another actor who has been working steadily in the business for years and it shows. An excellent actor by any standard and one who, if they ever do a biographical film about Yul Brenner, should definitely be cast as Brenner. Danielle Harris played the pregnant Belle. Danielle is known as the new “Scream Queen” and as powerful as her performance was, I did feel it was a shame she didn’t have more to do.

Danielle Harris
Danielle Harris

The  “Readers Digest” version of the plot is as follows:  Young Martin finds himself in a world gone mad and overrun with vampires. After his family is slaughtered by a vampire he is saved by Mister. Mister is a vampire hunter and his reputation is starting to precede him. Mister and Martin are heading for “New Eden” in Canada, the news is that New Eden is vampire free. On their journey north to New Eden, they pick up: A nun, a marine and young pregnant girl. After they pick-up the nun, they briefly lose her, but she is one tough Sister and makes her way back to the pair.

During  their journey, they not only kill every vampire they come across but they also have to fight off the religious zealots who have a tendency to kill, rape and otherwise mistreat other survivors that have the misfortune to cross their path. While all this is going on, Mister is teaching Martin how to become a hunter like himself. The land they are travelling through is bleak and practically deserted. They do come across the odd “town” where survivors have banded together, but these towns are open targets for the vampires and for the zealots.

At one town they come across the pregnant Belle who hitches a ride as she wants her baby born in New Eden. The foursome then head out and they come across a marine who has been left out as a sacrifice to vampires by the zealots.   I will  stop here with the plot synopsis as I don’t want to have any spoilers in the review.

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This film was a great mix of  gore, scares, sadness, humour and pathos. The inclusion of the religious “cult” survivors and their rabid pursuit of God’s work was an excellent counter-balance to the stoic, taciturn hunter Mister. The cinematography was sharp and beautifully dark. The only problem I had with the film was the narration by Paolo. He spoke in a deeper more gravelly tone, to show that he was older than in the film. This worked well except for the music. The soundtrack was intrusive during the narration and I had a bit of a problem actually making out what Martin was saying. This is probably a personal problem as I do suffer from Tinnitus.

The casting for Stake Land was spot on. The people that the protagonists meet and interact with, looked like real people. The biggest ‘name” in the film was Kelly McGillis and she looks nothing like she did in her Top Gun days. Because they cast so well, the film, at times, almost felt like a documentary it added that touch of realism.

The vampires were excellent. Mickle and Damici chose to use the ‘old fashion’ type vampires for their film and it was a welcome change.  No one sparkled or wandered around in the sun. These vampires, for the most part, were mindless, savage drinking machines. They were not witty nor were they overly articulate. They were scary.

If you only watch one post-apocalyptic film this year, try to make it Stake Land.  It’s a film that’s got bite.

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