With a glut of horror movies in the marketplace, it's difficult to come up with something new.
The makers of Dark Skies accepted the challenge and discreetly devised a horror mash-up: equal parts haunted-house movie, demonic-possession movie and alien-invasion movie.
Writer-director Scott Stewart (Priest, Legion) sets his tale against the ordinary horror of a faltering economy. Whatever the disadvantages of an economic meltdown, it sure makes it easy to establish a feeling of dread, accomplished with a single shot of a real estate for-sale sign stamped with the words: "Bank owned."
In this grim financial climate, things are not all milk and cookies for the Barrett clan.
Dad Daniel (Josh Hamilton) is an unemployed architect. Mom Lacy (Keri Russell) is trying to make ends meet as a real estate agent. Eldest son Jesse (Dakota Goyo) is a rebellious 13 year old with a stormy adolescence in front of him. And youngest son Sam (Kaden Rockett) is at an age when his imagination is starting to cause concern, especially regarding his juvenile obsession with a night visitor he calls the Sandman.
As if an overdue mortgage wasn't problem enough, mysterious things start happening in the Barrett house. Most spectacularly, three different flocks of birds dive-bomb the house in what seems an inexplicable mass avian suicide. The kids have sleepwalking episodes. Then the adults do too, mixed with other unsettling symptoms such as nosebleeds and nightmares.
In that most common cinematic manifestation of suburban evil, the youngest son starts to draw disturbing images in crayon. The pictures depict visitations by dark, gangly figures who will come to be known as "The Greys."
Things come to a head, so to speak, when poor Keri Russell is suddenly possessed by an alien presence while showing a house to two interested buyers. Under some kind of spell, she stops mid-pitch and starts banging her head against the window. I'm guessing this behaviour isn't all that uncommon in the real estate biz, but one especially sympathizes with Russell, who may have been acting out her frustration with her movie career: "Why (whack) did they (whack) have to cancel (whack) Felicity?"
Eventually, J.K. Simmons shows up as presumed conspiracy nut Edwin Pollard to explain just what is happening to the family. If the overall film is kind of dumb, casting Simmons was especially smart. Simmons, a versatile actor who played a scary neo-Nazi in the TV series Oz and J. Jonah Jameson in three Spider-Man movies, is here to sell the film's most outlandish exposition. And he succeeds because the actor makes such smart choices, depicting a kind of bruised but unbowed stoicism in the face of presumptive madness.
This sublime subtlety eventually gives way to the usual terrors as the Barrett clan prepare for war against the film's extraterrestrial puppet-masters.
Perhaps the film goes wrong, not because its scares are so familiar, but because it asks too much of us. Doubtless a few people believe in ghosts, demons and extraterrestrials. But even in the context of a hokey horror movie, it's a bit of a stretch to ask us to believe they all exist in the same package.