Written by: John Doolan (screenplay), Michael Laimo (novel)
Directed by: Colin Theys
Starring: Dean Stockwell, Sean Patrick Thomas, Blanche Baker
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
A quiet town. A Deadly secret.
Deep in the Darkness is familiar. In many cases, this isn’t an altogether crippling quality, but it’s hard to get past it here since this film stitches together so many familiar tropes and story beats without much ingenuity or exceptional craftsmanship. It’s the sort of movie destined to unfold as white noise in the background, which probably explains why it debuted in its natural habitat: on the Chiller Network on a Tuesday night. I know, I know: maybe it’s not fair to judge this sort of thing, especially since Chiller has been home to some (relatively) decent fare in the past few years. Deep in the Darkness continues the trend of being sort-of-bad-but-not-Chiller-bad, but it hardly inspires much more than that half-hearted sentiment.
From the get-go, it dutifully trots out cliché after cliché: after opening in media res with a father (Sean Patrick Thomas) clutching his bleeding daughter before flashing back to less perilous times. Thomas is Michael Cayle, a doctor looking to move from the New York City to a rural New England town to practice. He finds an astounding house whose previous owner is a little bit too antsy to sell off the place after her husband died during an “animal attack” (I swear to god she might as well throw up air quotes during the conversation). Even though this all clearly seems too good to be true, he packs the family up and swiftly moves them out to Ashborough, a hole-in-the-wall that’s immediately creepy. There’s a town curfew. No cable television*. Outgoing citizens who still seem to be hiding something. Foreboding woods in the distance.
You get the picture, presumably because you’ve seen it painted a dozen times before. A rather dense adaptation of Michael Laimo’s novel of the same name, Deep in the Darkness unloads piles of exposition before arriving at its main point: according to Michael’s oddball neighbor (Dean Stockwell, always reliable), the town has a centuries-old pact with a brood of monsters living in the nearby woods. New residents are expected to make a ritual sacrifice, but Michael is understandably skeptical and refuses to partake in such barbarism. Big mistake, of course.
By the time this main plot comes into focus, you realize you’ve traded one cliché (a town hiding a dark secret) for another (a town actively participating in its conspiratorial dark secret). The latter is at least more fertile than the former, even if it is shades of The Lottery, The Village, and other stories of that ilk. With this route, there is at least some psychological intrigue since it doesn’t put viewers on a direct path to a pack of feral mutant-men attacking Michael and his family. Instead, it takes a more ominous, mysterious approach to hammer home just how screwy this town is, with its shifty matriarch (Blanche Baker) and even shiftier citizens eager to protect the status quo (it must also be noted that one particularly lustful blonde keeps trying to jump Michael’s bones in an amusing subplot).
But where most stories cut from this cloth attempt to illuminate some darker side of human nature (an off-hand remark about the mostly white, rural town not taking to Michael because he’s black is a throwaway line that goes nowhere), this one settles on mining it for some half-assed schlock—and not particularly entertaining schlock, either. Praise be to the Chiller overlords for once again springing for practical monsters here, but it’s a small comfort considering they don’t do very much until a climactic, somewhat gory confrontation. Their designs are hardly imaginative, either, in keeping with the film’s unremarkable, low budget aesthetic that keeps it over-lit and over-scored by an incessant, droning soundtrack trying to overcome the lack of suspense and propulsion. You keep waiting for Deep in the Darkness to either plunge into its few weird story digressions or completely embrace the schlock, and it just drags its feet towards an obvious twist that only takes the film into more familiar territory (hello, Rosemary’s Baby, haven’t seen you riffed on in, like, forever).
Ultimately, Deep in the Darkness is a turgid void of a movie, one that’s seemingly been engineered to be immediately forgotten. It does so at the expense of a decent cast: Thomas is an actor whose natural affability serves this story well, and he makes the most out of a stock character—his mounting desperation mounts just enough sympathy to anchor an all-too-familiar story. Stockwell, too, adds to the intrigue with an oddball presence here the rest of the film struggles to live up to. Somehow, a brood of humanoid monsters fails to inspire much more than a shrug—turns out maybe it’s familiarity that kills beasts, especially when a film hardly bothers to shroud them in mystery. Everything about these creatures is illuminated, meaning few surprises are in store as viewers wait for its slow-witted characters to catch-up. That could be fun if director Colin Theys had any sense of irony; the problem is he’s proceeding as if he’s the first person to tell this story.
While Scream Factory has done a solid job lately with the films they’ve plucked from the cable television ranks, Deep in the Darkness is their weakest choice in a while. Regardless, it receives a fine treatment on Blu-ray: an expectedly sleek transfer is complimented by two DTS-MA tracks, while a trailer, TV spots, and some short interviews with the cast serve as extras. Coincidentally, Shout/Scream Factory have been responsible for curating most of Theys’s filmography on home video, so I suspect someone will prize this release for that reason. Beyond that, Deep in the Darkness hardly makes a case for itself unless you’ve somehow avoided the better versions of this familiar story. You’d be better off playing catch-up, though.
*Truly the most terrifying thing the film has to offer, though it does tee up an obvious potshot: at least the folks of Ashborough won’t have to waste their time watching the likes of Deep in the Darkness.
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