Written by: Ben Crane
Directed by: Daniel Wise
Starring: Tom Sizemore, Rick Ravanello, and Evalena Marie
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Pray that it never arrives.
Why does the mtyh of the Jersey Devil persist? I’d like to think it endures in the same way most urban legends endure: because part of the human psyche wants to believe something otherworldly and inexplicable can survive into the modern world. There’s something chillingly simplistic about these stories that make them appealing, and they reflect our longing to connect with an old, superstitious world we can never quite shake. Sometimes, we don’t want things to be explained or reconciled with modernity.
But that obviously doesn’t stop some folks from trying. Dark Haul doesn’t explicitly call its beast “The Jersey Devil” by name, but it obvious cribs from its familiar lore before exploring how the creature could work if it were discovered by society. The answer is an overcomplicated mess of a movie that finds itself jumping through too many hoops just to arrive at a predictable destination featuring a monster terrorizing people in the woods—which is really all we need from a Jersey Devil movie, right?
Dark Haul’s launching point is the 18th century, which his when the Devil was purportedly born. As an ill-fated couple’s 13th child, it is fated to be born as a winged beast destined to fulfill an apocalyptic prophecy. This much of the story has been relayed for centuries now, but what Dark Haul supposes is that this creature also has an immortal, half-human sister to serve as his caretaker alongside a cabal of “keepers” to keep him contained so he can’t unleash Armageddon. Over the course of two centuries, this group evolves into a paramilitary outfit that has basically enslaved Zib (Evalena Marie) and her beastly brother in an 18-wheeler that moves from location to location in order to…well, I’m not sure they even have a goal. Basically, they just need to keep these two away from their birthplace in perpetuity.
It’s both pretty simple, yet complicated and awkward all at once. Buying into this scenario without picking apart the logistics is difficult: wouldn’t it just be easier to squirrel these two away at some maximum security facility? Instead, they’re constantly out on the road and even unleashed for the group’s training exercises, which doesn’t seem to be the best idea. Apparently, it’s a deal that the group’s leader (Rick Ravanello) has worked out with Zib to keep her satisfied so she’ll keep the beast in check. If Dark Haul explored this dynamic in any meaningful way, it might justify how ridiculous this setup is. Instead, it’s mostly just a recipe for obvious, inevitable disaster when Zib finally has enough and conspires to unleash her brother on their captors.
When the rubber meets the road after a handful of plot mechanizations, you’re left with a divided group. After staging a coup, a disgruntled enforcer (Tom Sizemore) and a priest (Kevin Shea) commit to finally destroying the monster once and for all. Considering the stakes and a method of containment that so obviously courts disaster, you’re inclined to believe they have a point. Part of the problem here is that they’re treated as stock, one-dimensional Bad Guys, while Zib and her brother are sympathetic creatures, and it’s a concept without a surprising and fulfilling resolution. Dark Haul trucks itself exactly where you expect it to, and there’s not a compelling character or performance along for the ride.
Marie comes the closest as Zib, a girl who understandably feels slighted after being held captive for nearly 300 years. However, so much of her story relies on shorthand: she obviously doesn’t want to see her brother destroyed or imprisoned because, hey, that’s her brother, and family is important. Never mind that he’s the Jersey Devil, I guess. It’s ridiculous, and Marie at least embraces the inherent camp with a turn that becomes increasingly fun and playful as she begins to manipulate the group towards their destruction. She’s able to remain sly without turning the whole thing into the completely laughable farce that it is. I don’t know why you make a Jersey Devil movie and surround it with so many complications when it’s a legend that preys on visceral fears and evokes childhood boogeymen. Repurposing it as a monster with a complex mythos and scenario takes it from campfire to high concept with diminishing returns.
What’s confounding is that it eventually circles around to the sort of familiar territory you’d expect, and it’s no surprise that the film is at its best when it finally embraces the schlock. While the SyFy Films banner that opens the credits invites some well-earned skepticism, Dark Haul mostly delivers on some old school splatter gags. The opening birth scene puts a cynical audience at ease with some lovely practical effects—well, so much as a sequence where a bat-like fetus rips through its mother’s womb and leaves her bleeding out can be considered “lovely.” Regardless, it’s a nice, re-assuring tone setter that announces that Dark Haul is going to at least try.
As it progresses, director Daniel Wise tries to keep the digital supplements to a minimum, and though he can’t outrun a limited budget that results in some poorly animated long shots of the beast and digital squibs, the effects fall heavily on the practical side of things. This is even true of the creature itself, which reveals itself in all its rubbery, man-in-suit glory during the climax, where it decapitates and bisects victims. In addition to his physical terrors, the devil is also able to project hallucinations to confuse those around him, an ability that leads to more bizarre and violent imagery.
SyFy productions have notoriously taken a well-deserved beating over the years, but here’s one that deserves credit for taking itself seriously. Even if it takes itself too seriously considering how silly it is, it’s preferable to some obvious piece of shit that invites laughs under the pretext of being “so bad it’s good.” Dark Haul wasn’t engineered specifically for Twitter snark, which is probably why it flew under the radar as Sharknado dominated headlines.* Don’t get me wrong: Dark Haul isn’t some unsung gem—it’s just that we’re operating on the steepest of curves here, one that rewards filmmakers for simply giving a shit. Just clearing that lowest of bars even allows me to overlook the hopelessly bad DTV aesthetic that pervades Dark Haul: the chintzy speed ramping, the incessant, overbearing score, the slumming actors.
It was apparently even decent enough for Scream Factory to release it, which is an endorsement that carries some considerable weight these days. Having already plucked some surprisingly good Chiller releases, they’ve apparently moved over to the sister company, and, even though the Blu-ray arrives without special features, the presentation is more than solid. Considering how many SyFy originals go unreleased on video, I guess it’s a big enough deal that Scream Factory even chose it in the first place. It’s still a bit of a curious decision, but I sort of like that the label is apparently trying to take stock of the entire range the genre has to offer, and even something like Dark Haul fits in there somewhere. I’m still waiting on a killer Jersey Devil movie, though. Rent it!
*"Better than Sharkando!" There's your pull quote, Syfy.
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