The true fan of the horror genre understands that the preparation for a scare, rather than its realization, is the true fount of gratification—just as Christmas Eve will always be superior to Christmas morning for its anticipatory, half-imagined teasing of the events to come. That said, Dark Was the Night may take the notion of implication over illustration a bit too far. The film’s basically a very long, foreshadowy first act followed by a rushed conclusion that serves to dispel our curiosity about the narrative’s menace without providing a corresponding catharsis. Director Jack Hellner is obviously trying to replicate the “tell, don’t show” aesthetic of M. Night Shyamalan’s early films, particularly Signs, with a bit of Larry Fessenden’s Wendigo thrown in for environmental topicality. But the filmmaker lacks Shyamalan’s finesse, his once-impressive ability to mine an entire, terrifying film solely out of exposition, and he also wants for Fessenden’s rough-hewn social outrage.
Dark Was the Night depends heavily on your appreciation of those endearingly hoary scenes, which aren’t really in fashion anymore, where people hole up in a bar or a church and lay out their plans for combating whatever’s awaiting them outside. Paul Shields (Kevin Durand) is the sheriff of a small woodland community out in the middle of nowhere that appears to be populated by roughly a dozen people, the usual motley movie-town collection of embittered drunks, sages, displaced men with murky pasts, and one or two fetching ladies who exist forever on the periphery of the heroes’ sideways glances. Paul lost one of his sons recently in an accident, and, like the priest Mel Gibson played in Signs, he’s in need of a supernatural invasion to kick-start his healing process. Paul and his right hand, Donny Saunders (Lukas Haas), investigate a series of animal disappearances, weird cloven footprints in the snow, and eventually a few human murders, gradually concluding that they might be dealing with something beyond their paygrade.
Durand and Haas are a good team for an unassumingly cheesy monster movie, as they’re likeably prone to underacting in that “grizzled” fashion that really constitutes a roundabout kind of overacting. A few of the scenes in which the audience almost catches a glimpse of a creature, especially a shot of something skittering in front of a vehicle while crossing the road, are creepy. But there’s nothing to rival that great moment in Signs (which Hellner quotes here) where we first see the aliens with disconcerting casualness on an excerpt of a home video broadcasted on a news station. As ludicrous and intolerant as Signs eventually becomes (suggesting that atheists are doomed to be molested by aliens), its imagery potently revels in a perversion of reassuring American iconography. Dark Was the Night is just dark, lit in an endless series of blueish gray hues that quickly grow oppressive. And the monster is a disappointment. We’re prepared for the emergence of an elegant wendigo, only to be provided yet another indecipherable mush of generic CGI features that fade from memory as soon as they’re introduced. The film’s slightness, appealingly unpretentious at first, grows tedious.