Somewhere deep in the forests of Maine, a team of loggers has apparently gone missing when they don’t show up at a designated rendezvous point for a mandatory evacuation. Apparently, this new enterprise into these virgin woods is going on a temporary hiatus due to an impending snowstorm of epic proportions. And when their foreman (Agee) can’t raise these stragglers on the radio he goes out to look for them, but only finds the other radio attached to a severed arm. He then makes it back into his truck before he is violently attacked and killed by some unseen hell-beast -- of course, this is an assumption based on the amount of gore coating all the windows but pretty sure he dead. Yeah, he dead.
Meanwhile, about twenty miles south near the town of Maiden Woods (Population: 292), the local Sheriff, Paul Shields (Durand), and his sole deputy, Donny Saunders (Haas), a recent transplant from New York City looking for a slower change of pace, are having a heated conversation with a local rancher (Paterson). Seems one of his horses has gone missing but Shields nor Saunders can see any sign of escape or foul play and figure the cantankerous old coot just forgot to close the corral gate properly last night and leave it at that.
From the get-go it’s pretty obvious the overly dour and morose Shields has something else occupying his mind -- to the point of constantly zoned-out distraction. And we get our answer as to why this is pretty quickly when he picks up his son for the night from his estranged wife, Susan (Kajlich), currently staying with her mother. Seems their marriage is teetering on the brink due to the recent tragic loss of their youngest son, Tim. And while Susan has sought out counseling and is ready to at least try and move on, hopefully together, her husband is indefinitely hung-up in the denial, guilt, and depression stages of the grieving process for reasons the movie isn’t quite ready to reveal just yet.
Later that night, as Shields barely holds it together, he butchers a batch of french toast for Adam (Khusidman) while fielding questions over when is mommy coming home, does he not love her like he used to, and why nobody talks about Tim anymore. (As someone who lost a sibling at the age of 8, who simply ceased to exist after she died because the mere mention of her name sent my mother into a tailspin for nearly forty years, I can relate, kid. Same thing for my dad, who had died a year earlier. It’s not fair. And it sucks.) This painful interrogation finally ends when Adam swears he saw someone in the backyard; and someone so big he encourages his father to take his gun when he goes out to investigate. And while Shields hears … something, moving around in the trees, it’s too dark to actually see anything.
The next morning, Saunders stops by and then asks Shields to step outside when he mentions his nocturnal visitor. And there, all around his house are a series of what appears to be cloven footprints of some animal that seemed to be walking on two legs. Neither man has ever heard of such a beast, and neither will the rangers in the State’s forestry service. Saunders then informs Shields this wasn’t an isolated incident, and there are similar, single file tracks like this all over the town -- in and out of yards, over fences, and up and down the streets in what is starting to feel like a scouting mission of some kind. But by whom or what? And to what purpose? And then things take an even more sinister turn when Shields and Saunders trace the strange tracks out of town and into the forest for nearly three miles until the footprints just suddenly stop with nowhere to go for whatever left them but straight up...
As the legend goes, after a night of heavy snowfall on February 8, 1855, several trails of strange cloven-hoof marks or “hoofprints” some four inches long, three inches wide, with the bipedal gait of about eight to sixteen inches were discovered the following morning in and around the town of Topsham, England, near the waters of Exe Estuary in the southwest area of Devon county. And as the legend continues, these tracks were reported in at least thirty different locations in Devon with a couple more confirmed cases in nearby Dorset -- “houses, rivers, haystacks and other obstacles were traveled straight over or through, and footprints appeared on the tops of the snow-covered roofs and high walls which lay in the footprints' path, as well as leading up to and exiting various drain pipes as small as four inches in diameter” according to the sensational newspaper accounts of the day. And if the legend is to be believed, some of these trails of footprints stretched out somewhere between 40 to 100 miles.
Some said it was all a hoax, others looked toward rational explanations, including it being nothing more than the weights from a trailing mooring line from an experimental hot-air balloon that accidentally got loose and was covered-up due to liability issues, or an escaped kangaroo, or simply badgers, while the more superstitious felt it was Satan himself prowling around. Almost 150 years later, paranormal researcher Mike Dash collated all the available reports and materials and theories on the mysterious “Devil’s Footprints” case and published his findings in an article for The Fortean Times, a British magazine dedicated to the unexplained, named after the noted American investigator of “anomalous phenomena” Charles Hoy Fort, with the headline, “The Devil's Hoofmarks: Source Material on the Great Devon Mystery of 1855.” And after sifting through what little evidence there was, Dash felt the true source of the phenomenon was, well, inconclusive and “the mystery remains."
Tyler Hisel would base his screenplay for The Trees on the legend of The Devil’s Footprints; a contemporary take which started making the studio rounds in 2009 and wound up on the prestigious Hollywood Blacklist -- not to be confused with the dire Blacklist of the 1950s but an annual list of the top 100 new screenplays of the given year. The option was eventually picked up by producer Jack Heller -- The Package (2012), Bad Milo (2013), and he would follow this adaptation up co-producing S. Craig Zahler’s outstanding horror-western mash-up, Bone Tomahawk (2015), whose sense of a grounded reality punctuated by outbursts of horrible violence would also show up in Dark Was the Night (2014) to some extent, which was also a rare stint in the director’s chair for Heller.
“It's a family drama that also happens to be a creature film,” is how Hisel described his script in an interview for JoBlo.com. A story “that began deliberately but eventually builds an unremitting pace as simple people find themselves against increasingly imposing and unnatural odds.” And at its heart, Dark Was the Night definitely feels like a 1950s era creature feature as seen through a JAWS (1975) filter with just a hint of the eco-disaster elements of John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy (1979):
The threat is established early, but we don’t know exactly what it is except extremely dangerous and deadly. Our protagonists start sifting through the mounting evidence as mysterious things keep happening; the surrounding forests have been vacated by all the other forms of wildlife according to Shield’s expert hunter friend, Earl (Damici); most domestic pets have also disappeared; and the birds are so desperate to get away they’re flying against their normal migration patterns. And as the disappearances of people and livestock mount, it’s easy to see that this alpha predator is circling ever closer to Maiden Woods and a full rampage is due at any moment unless Shields can figure out what this thing is and how to stop it before the whole town is consumed by this menace as if eaten by a giant radioactive spider.
Here, a few simple Google searches and area Native folklore subs in for bringing in any outside expert to help solve the mystery as Shields doesn’t really like where his train of thought is going, nor the conclusions of the same, especially after he and Adam have another close encounter with the monster; but the only real identifying evidence he finds after a brief pursuit is a more defined hoofprint and proof the rancher didn’t leave his gate open and the predator has been feeding on his horses. In fact, the ranch is attacked again, leaving more physical evidence of tremendous claw marks on the side of a barn. Then, mutilated bodies start showing up in the forest, hung up high in the trees.
As Shields and Saunders keep spit-balling on solutions, the internet says there are no three-toed cloven-hoofed animals in this known existence. However, a handy link opens a rabbit hole on the wendigo myth. Maybe it’s like the coelacanth, says Saunders, a fish that was thought to be extinct only it was swimming around beneath our noses the whole time. Maybe there is something out there they just haven’t seen yet? Like a Sasquatch. Shields runs with this notion after seeing the startling image of a humanoid shaped thing caught on a game trail camera, conferring with other towns to see if they’re having similar problems and gets a hit about a group of loggers that vanished under dubious circumstances, and concludes this recent deforestation is what drove the deadly creature out of its normal habitat deep in the woods and set it on a crash course with his town.
Thus and so, Shields orders a mandatory curfew for Maiden Woods and tells everyone who didn’t evacuate because of the coming storm to stay locked up tight until help arrives after that blizzard subsides. But his plan changes when his house comes under siege by the creature and we finally get a better glimpse of the thing -- at least from the waste down, which is lightning fast, strong, and invulnerable enough to survive several bullet wounds. With his house soon destroyed, Shields is saved by the timely arrival of Saunders, who manages to drive the monster off with his shotgun.
With that, Shields and Saunders round up all the stragglers left in town into the church, feeling with the storm shelter in the basement it’s the most strategically sound. But the creature attacks before they can all hole up inside of it. Leaving Earl to guard the door of the shelter, Shields and Saunders, armed to the teeth, head out to try and kill the beast. In perhaps not the wisest of moves, they split up and Saunders gets ambushed in the kitchen, is severely mauled, but ultimately drives the monster off with another shotgun blast at close range.
There’s a moment in Dark Was the Night that comes at the end of the first act, when Saunders asks Shields outside to see the tracks left around his house and its revealed this wasn’t an isolated incident, and we cut around Maiden Woods to see more tracks, then to a master shot of main street, which shows more of the same tracks embedded in the asphalt that leads the eye to the vanishing point off in the distance and the camera subtly elevates and zooms out as several concerned townsfolk come into frame, gather, and take it all in. It’s a moment of genuine disquiet and extremely effective but it also set-off alarm bells in my head as I kinda knew, right there, with over half the run time yet to go, that the rest of the film would never, ever live up to what I just saw. And, alas, I was proven right.
Yeah, this is one of those horror films where the intriguing set up is much, much better than the spluttering payoff. And most of that disappointment lays at the feet of the FX department. For me, Dark Was the Night works so much better when we don’t see the creature, only hear it, or catch a brief glimpse of something moving around in the trees. As the film progresses, we get to see more and more of it, realized with both practical and digital effects. And while the practical “man in a monster suit” FX courtesy of Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. come off splendidly, we only see the fully realized beast for the final battle rendered in CGI and it was a major letdown, bringing to mind an nth Xeroxed copy of Groot on a bad hair day.
But I did really like the B-plot of Shield’s recovery and redemption. I liked his family dynamic, and the bits of levity leavened throughout the film -- especially the parent-teacher conference over the inappropriate use of the word “pecker.” At some point, Susan tells Saunders what happened to Tim; how he accidentally drowned while his father was supposed to be watching him. And even though she holds no blame, the guilt is eating her husband alive. (All the townsfolk seem to be silently judging him on this tragic mistake, too, which isn’t really helping.) Kevin Durand really delivers in his portrayal of a man who is mentally fraying at both ends with the center barely holding. Needing to save the rest of his family and rallying the town together, Shields appears to finally be acting like his old self again. Saving Adam from a certain death at least twice probably helped turn a corner, too. Of course, this all turns out to be moot due to a blown headcount. The rest of the cast is just as solid, with a great turn by Bianca Kajlich, Lukas Haas and Nick Damici, who seems to be everywhere lately, genre wise, both in front of -- Stake Land (2010), Late Phases (2014), and behind the camera -- Hap and Leonard (2016).
I guess in the end I liked Dark Was the Night well enough overall. It does suffer from kitchen-sink syndrome a bit in that since we shot all of these scenes we’d best use all of them even though it bogs the narrative down and gets a little too repetitive as evidence is discovered, scary noises growl, evidence disappears, lather, rinse, repeat. There’s a point in any movie of this nature when the audience finally runs out of patience waiting for the characters to catch up with what they know. It’s a delicate balance to maintain, and as I said this was only Heller’s second feature as a director and perhaps in more capable hands, and with a few more renderings by the FX department on the monster, something pretty good might’ve been something pretty great.
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Dark Was the Night (2014) Caliber Media Company :: Foggy Bottom Pictures :: Preferred Content :: Sundial Pictures :: The Molecule :: Image Entertainment / EP: Ross M. Dinerstein, Tyler Hisel, Kevin Iwashina, Ted Markovic, Alexander Robb / P: Joey Carey, Jack Heller, Dylan K. Narang, Stefan Nowicki, Dallas Sonnier / CP: Lizz Morhaim, Morgan White / AP: Jason Dolan, Lee Stobby / D: Jack Heller / W: Jack Heller / C: Ryan Samul / E: Paul Covington, Timothy Donovan, Toby Yates / M: Darren Morze / S: Kevin Durand, Lukas Haas, Bianca Kajlich, Nick Damici, Ethan Khusidman, Steve Agee