Dark Skies isn’t a great movie or even a particularly memorable one, but as a mid-winter timewaster it fills an empty slot well. From the company that brought you Insidious and Sinister comes another slice of suburban horror that might not break new ground or redefine horror, but simply by virtue of the fact that it actually fulfils basic genre expectations, it feels slightly ahead of the usual Hollywood horror pack. Blumhouse Productions have proven themselves to be a company who actually seem to like making horror movies rather than including them on the production slate for a quick buck. Dark Skies brings back alien abduction horror after a long absence following the genre’s Spielberg, X-Files, and Unsolved Mysteries influenced 90s heyday, and simply because it hasn’t been done in so long, an average entry in that subgenre feels pretty good.
Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton star as a pair of semi-struggling middleclass parents with all the financial woes and gentle emotional problems required to make them relatable characters these days. They’ve also got two sons, one semi-awkwardly stumbling into adolescence (Dakota Goyo) and the other a precocious pre-teen (Kaden Rockett). That’s important because odd things are about to happen in the house and it will be focused on the young ones since that’s how horror movies work. The older one starts waking up in the middle of the night to wander around unconsciously and soon the rest of the family does the same. Then one day an entire flock of birds crashes into the house unexpectedly. It’s all quite odd and creepy, feeling like the set up to another haunted house scenario. However, the family isn’t haunted by ghosts, they’re plagued by something else. If you guessed aliens because I said that in the last paragraph, you’d be right.
Most of the best material in the movie comes in the first hour as the series of creepy events pile up. Russell finds herself unable to speak during a sales pitch and suddenly bangs her head on a window, while Goyo finds himself seizuring and levitating in the middle of the woods, and both kids end up covered in scars that would make any child protective services agent feel wary. It’s a strong build up that writer/director Scott Stewart handles reasonably well. The glaringly phony CGI overkill of his previous flicks Priest and Legion just isn’t possible with a Blumhouse budget and he proves to be a better filmmaker when reigned in than expected. His skill with suspense sequences is middling to adequate, which is all that’s needed for the deeply average movie. There are a few stabs at adolescent honestly beyond the scares like when Goyo’s character tries to seduce his first girlfriend using lines and techniques pulled from porno, which are mildly amusing. Realism isn’t really Stewart’s strength as a writer, but a couple of decent scenes like that slip in that are handled well by the cast. Good acting has been a staple of the Blumhouse joints so far and that goes a long way in selling a silly scary movie.
Of course, once alien abduction comes play into things will inevitably get even sillier as the required nutbars and conspiracy theorists join the party. This too is handled surprisingly well as Dark Skies proves yet again that having an “And JK Simmons” card in your opening credits is never a bad thing. Simmons pops up as the alien obsessive who explains that the family has been personally targeted for tests/abduction and he turns a potentially exposition-only character into a memorable screen presence. After that, Stewart settles into an inevitable alien suburban siege finale complete with Home Alone traps and shotguns. Like everything else in the movie, the climax delivers the goods without being exceptional. It’s hard to know how to rate a movie like Dark Skies because it’s neither weak enough to tear apart nor strong enough for glowing praise. The movie simply is what it is and sadly, just getting that out of a Hollywood horror movie feels like a pleasant surprise these days. Stewart admittedly crafts some decent scares that deliver on the central concept (particularly during the “are they aliens or ghosts” opening act) and proves to be a better director than his previous effects reel blockbusters suggest.
Blumhouse is clearly a place where filmmakers can make the genre movie they imagine without much interference as long as the production falls within a certain price range. It’s great they exist, but the company needs to step it up a notch if they plan to continue. The suburban fright formula they’ve trotted out since Paranormal Activity is starting to get stale and while it’s nice to see that folks like Scott Stewart, James Wan, and Scott Derrickson can actually deliver a watchable horror movie when given the opportunity, it feels like a waste to offer creative control to average directors like them when the genuine American horror auteurs remain unemployed and/or struggling. Granted the company did get behind Rob Zombie’s upcoming Lords Of Salem, so that’s a major step in the right direction and hopefully the company’s future. Sure, it makes sense for them to crank out predictable/profitable units like Dark Skies and they’re fun enough to watch. But hopefully the Blumhouse commits to taking bigger risks in the future or they’ll just end being another Dimension rather than a New World Pictures 2.0.