Times are tough in the 'burbs. That will come as no surprise to anyone who keeps a finger on the pounding pulse of the American horror film, probably our most user-friendly barometer of cultural anxieties. Sci-fi horror of the '50s famously tapped into our fears of atom-age science and Cold War invaders; two decades later, killer-kid movies and other reproductive horror films explored concerns of a decidedly more intimate sort.
Those children of the '70s are all grown up now, and they're not the monsters anymore. They're the victims in a very real horror show—the recession and its attendant layoffs and mortgage crisis—and their struggles are fueling a fresh wave of genre films such as 2011's Insidious, last year's Sinister, and the latest entry, Dark Skies. On the surface, these flicks look like the same haunted-house yarn we've been spinning for as long as we've been making movies. In this latest spate of films, though, it's not really the houses that are haunted—it's the families themselves, and there's ultimately no one who can help them.
Scott Stewart, who wrote and directed Dark Skies, has studied these films closely, and he understands, at least to an extent, how and why they work. The fact that the boogeymen in Dark Skies are aliens and not ghosts or the demons who lurk about in both of the aforementioned films is irrelevant; Dark Skies is perhaps the most explicit (and explicitly derivative) mile marker of the new, haunted-family horror we've seen so far. It hits practically every hallmark of this burgeoning subgenre: damaged children, ineffectual mothers, emasculated fathers, expensive but ultimately useless technology. Stewart, a former visual-effects artist, knows his stuff.
Unfortunately, smart people sometimes make bad movies, and Dark Skies is a bad movie. It has a lot going for it: the monsters are creepy, Stewart occasionally conjures a nearly palpable sense of dread, and the flick boasts a surprisingly good performance by Keri Russell and a great, if brief, turn from veteran television actor J.K. Simmons. But it's ultimately an uninspired, predictable jumble of clichés wrangled with the same heavy hand that marked Stewart's previous films, 2009's Legion and 2011's Priest. Dark Skies is definitely a step in the right direction for him, but it's kind of a baby step.
Russell and Josh Hamilton star as Lacy and Daniel Barrett, a couple struggling to pay the mortgage on their too-large suburban home. In case we don't get it, both work, or used to work, in the embattled housing industry; Daniel is an out-of-work architect, and Lacy is a real-estate agent who specializes in foreclosures. They're nearly to the breaking point already, but things get immeasurably worse when their youngest son, Sam (Kadan Rockett), starts complaining about night-time visits from someone called "the Sandman." Soon the entire family, which also includes teenage Jesse (Dakota Goyo), is experiencing blackouts, nosebleeds, and weird, short-lived catatonic states. When both boys are discovered to have strange, gruesome marks on their bodies, Lacy and Daniel come under suspicion.
Since the trailer gives away most of the movie, it's not a spoiler to reveal the nature of the family's most pressing problems: Aliens want them, and, according to the weird ufologist(Simmons) Lacy and Daniel consult, aliens are persistent, stalker-y jerks who will never, ever leave them alone. Most of Dark Skies revolves around a repetitive series of daytime freak-outs and night-time shocks as the situation escalates and Stewart ticks off a laundry list of horror-movie tropes: creepy drawings, malfunctioning security alarms, ominous newspaper clippings tacked to a wall, etc.
But, you know, broken clocks, blind squirrels and all that. For all its heavy-handed clumsiness, Dark Skies does manage to pull of a couple of intense scares on its way to a moderately effective, psychedelic climax that starts too late and ends too soon. Its creepiest moments are ones that subtly incorporate visual elements of the Slenderman legend that haunts online message boards; early glimpses of the aliens are terrifying.
The "twist" at the end will surprise exactly zero viewers, but kudos to Stewart for ending on a bleak note with disturbing implications that only sink in a few minutes after the credits roll. Ultimately, though, Dark Skies' most disturbing implication is its threat of a sequel.