Let me preface this by saying that I don’t care for horror films. They are almost always overwrought cliches (or just overwrought torture porn). Sometimes they can have a great cast that makes it fun—not scary—to watch. Yet sometimes they can have truly terrifying moments. Dark Skies falls into that latter category (at least for me and the 8 other people in my theater).
The Barrett family is going through some financial tribulations. Patriarch Daniel (Josh Hamilton—who looks distractingly like a big-boned Justin Bartha) is an unemployed architect—who isn’t these days?—that must rely on his wife Lacy’s (Keri Russell) meager realtor income to pay the bills. While this may be a problem that would resolve itself quickly, a series of bizarre occurrences begin to take their monetary toll. Someone (or something) has been invading the house and eating all the lettuce and rearranging the canned goods into mathematical art. It’s not until Lacy sees a mysterious figure in her young son Sammy’s (Kadan Rockett) room and three flocks of birds dive straight into her house that she begins to really worry.
She self-diagnoses her problems on the internet and realizes that she and her family are being invaded by a form of extraterrestrial life referred to as The Grays (could they be the same breed of alien as the ones in American Horror Story: Asylum). They seem to be after Sammy, presumably because Lacy’s older son Jesse (Dakota Goyo) is merely a rebellious pothead. After consulting retired alien hunter Edwin Pollard (J.K. Simmons) he confirms their worst fears—but won’t interfere on their behalf. He merely bestows some sage advice and sends them on their way.
The story certainly sounds basic and banal enough, but writer/director Scott Stewart portrays the story with a heightened sense of realism that makes the film compelling. So many horror stories seem to devolve into a series of completely unbelievable events that you can’t help but roll your eyes at. In Dark Skies, however, the events unfold just as they would in real life. When Lacy has a seemingly mental breakdown, she gets laid off from work, increasing their financial stakes. Of course, the alien intrusions are “unrealistic” but this is a horror film.
While the realism of the film makes it bearable, the glimpses of The Grays are what truly frighten you. First it’s just flashes of their creepily skinny forms. Then they’re lurking around corners and sneaking up behind the terrified Barretts. I never jump in fright during a film, but Dark Skies nearly elicited a few whelps amid all my cringing in horror. (The shadows in the vastly empty theater heightened my terrors as well.) The not-so-happy ending of the film, too, left me feeling haunted as I walked the dark streets alone afterwards.
As one of the only horror films to ever terrify me, I believe there must be something great about this film. It may just be that Russell’s acting is so compelling that I couldn’t help but get drawn into the story. Yet Stewart’s handling of the material was so deft that most of the credit must be placed on his shoulders. If you want to see a movie that will really terrify you, then this one will hit the spot (and you won’t have much trouble finding a moody, empty theater for true horror ambience).