October Horrorshow: Dark Skies

Oh, what’s this? Paranormal phenomena plaguing a family, a child being targeted, a frantic mother, a skeptical father, and a paranormal expert showing up in the third act to offer some wisdom. It’s yet another Poltergeist clone!

Once upon a time, I came up with an acronym for movies that followed a formula like Alien and The Thing. I referred to them as SCREWED films (Small Cast, Reclusive Environment, Where Everyone (almost) Dies). There has to be an acronym for horror films that follow the basic plot of Poltergeist. How about these? They’re a little tortured and hard to remember, but I think they’re apt. TIOFIGSO, for This Is One Formula I’m Getting Sick Of. DFPSATYNTSPATH, for Dear Filmmakers, Please Send All Thank You Notes To Steven Spielberg And Tobe Hooper. Or, ISTMAMFT, for I’ve Seen This Movie A Million Fucking Times.

I’m being unfair. Filmmakers keep relying on this formula because it’s such a reliable, general plotline. As long as the movie is well made, I have no problem with Hollywood cranking out one or two of these a year. And Dark Skies, from writer/director Scott Stewart, is well made.

Taking place somewhere in sunny California, but most definitely filmed in the San Fernando Valley, Dark Skies follows the Barrett family. They’re just about as white bread suburbia as America is capable of producing these days. Dad is an out of work architect who is feeling his manhood slip away with every unpaid bill. Mom is a mid-thirties real estate agent who probably got in the game too late to make a buck. Junior is only thirteen, but is dangerously close to becoming a burnout. And the youngest, little, innocent Sammy, is being visited by aliens in the night. Umm...what now?

While all Poltergeist clones are basically the same, each of them throws in flashes of individuality. Dark Skies goes pretty far by replacing ghosts with aliens, but it works. Lest a reader think this is a bit of a spoiler, it’s not. The film opens with a quote from Arthur C. Clarke about the existence of life elsewhere in the universe. It kind of gives up the game before the first scene even begins, which makes me wish it weren’t there. But, the audience’s foreknowledge of events doesn’t stop Dark Skies from being a suspenseful little thriller. I was surprised.

The events taking place at night in the Barrett house start small, as they are wont to do in horror films, but they quickly escalate. The mother, Lacy (Keri Russell), is the first to pick up on the problems, but she has to convince her skeptical husband, Daniel (Josh Hamilton), that the burglar alarm going off at night has nothing to do with simple, adolescent sleepwalking. Eventually it becomes clear that the aliens have a particular interest in Sammy (Kadan Rockett), and mom and dad try their best to make sure he isn’t abducted. The final piece of the Poltergeist formula, that of the expert or psychic called in to help the beleaguered family, is here represented by Edwin Pollard (J.K. Simmons). Edwin is himself a sufferer of alien visitations. Unfortunately he can offer no help, only sage, yet depressing, advice.

Dark Skies comes close to losing its coherence more than once throughout, but always manages to steady itself. Just when Stewart seems to offer up one too many cheap thrills for the film to maintain its tension, he seems to remember that a good film is not only about the spectacle. There are important things like character development and plot that demand attention, and Stewart makes sure they are served just as well as the occasional jump scare.

Russell and Hamilton do quite well in their performances, which helps Dark Skies quite a lot. Especially Hamilton. His everyman performance embodies the middle class American male who, these days, seems to be in over his head. All this guy wants is a win. He’s tired of feeling emasculated. He’s sick of feeling useless. He wasn’t raised in a country where the able-bodied struggle to hold their families together. I got all of this from a performance in a film about aliens. That’s a win for Mr. Hamilton.

Dark Skies is not a great horror film. It is a good one. It takes a common formula, reworks it for its own purposes, and gives the audience a nice, creepy film. And without giving any further spoilers, it has a hell of an ending.