A mysterious beast menaces an upstate New York hamlet in “Dark Was the Night,” a well-crafted horror pic that compensates (at least to a point) for its lack of original ideas with nice atmospherics and judicious restraint. This sophomore directorial feature for indie producer Jack Heller reps an improvement on his first, 2011’s “Enter Nowhere,” though if that three-hander thriller was ultimately overdependent on gimmicky narrative twists, Tyler Hisel’s screenplay here could have used a few more complications. Opening theatrically July 24, simultaneous with VOD and iTunes launch, “Night” should connect with genre fans primarily via home formats, with decent sales prospects in horror-friendly markets.
The prologue shows a logging foreman going to look for two men who failed to clock out at quitting time, only to meet the same violent (but as yet murky) fate they did. Then we move 90 miles south to Maiden Woods, a rural burg where precious little happens, especially in the wintertime. When a farmer complains that one of his horses has gone missing during the night, Sheriff Paul Shields (Kevin Durand of “Lost”) and Deputy Donny (Lukas Haas) figure the old coot simply left a gate open by mistake. Both lawmen have other things on their minds, anyway: Paul is resisting returning to the wife (Bianca Kajlich) and son (Ethan Khusidman) he’s temporarily living apart from, while Big Apple native Donny is finding it difficult adjusting to life in the sticks. Both men, we eventually learn, are nursing guilt from recent tragedies for which they blame themselves.
During a sleepover night at his place, sheriff and son hear strange noises outside. The next morning, the entire town is rattled by deep, large hoofprints (unlike those of any local animal species) encircling all their homes — and disappearing into thin air in the woods nearby. Paul at first skeptically insists it must be some juvenile prank. But further disturbing signs pile up, including an epidemic of pet disappearances and a sudden dearth of deer and other wildlife, which appear to have fled the area in a hurry.
When just one of three hunters survives to tell the tale after an attack by a presence so fast-moving he didn’t see it, the lawmen realize they’re dealing with an unknown, highly dangerous predator. With most of the local populace having already temporarily left due to warnings of a severe storm, those remaining gather for safety in the church once the monster begins breaking into individual homes.
The siege climax is OK but might have been more memorably nerve-jangling after such a long buildup, and the “It’s not over yet!” fadeout could hardly be more rote. But for the most part, “Dark Was the Night” holds attention by withholding the usual genre tropes: Admirably, director and scenarist resist springing false scares to goose the early going, instead relying on a literally and figuratively chilly atmosphere nicely limned in Ryan Samul’s handsome widescreen shots of winter landscapes drained of nearly all color save a pervasive bluish cast.
While the emphasis on the protags’ internal angst heightens the sober tenor for a while, it’s belabored a bit — yes, we know they’ve both got guilty consciences and need to “prove themselves” anew — as the action takes a little longer than necessary to kick in. (Admittedly, when we finally do see the beastie, one understands why it was kept hidden so long: It’s a not-very-inspired sort of winged Creature From the Black Lagoon, with a slightly retro Ray Harryhausen vibe.) Still, solid performances help the dramatic aspects achieve at least some of the gravity aimed for, which in turn helps elevate the proceedings a notch above standard horror suspense until the final reel’s requisite violent payoff.
Tech and design contributions are nicely turned all around.