Directed by: Padraig Reynolds. Starring: Jessica Madsen, Opal Littleton, Ed Brody. Released: December 6, 2019. Runtime: 1h 30 min.
This review contains mild spoilers.
In Dark Light, Annie Knox (Jessica Madsen) and her daughter Emily (Opal Littleton) move into Annie’s childhood home and learn that it’s inhabited by monsters.
The interesting thing about Padraig Reynolds’ Dark Light is it feels like it could go in so many different directions. The film starts like a haunted house story because of the things that go bump in the night and the secluded American farmhouse setting, complete with the cornfield in the backyard (and the film’s actually filmed in Tbilisi, Georgia, which subs in for Mississippi). I really liked the look of scenes at night, too, especially when we see establishing shots of the house with fog surrounding it.
The cornfield is used for a great sequence as Annie investigates lights in the cornfield and looks back at the house and sees a “man” with a headlamp fixed on his head in her room, and watches him cross the hallway towards her daughter’s room. Reynolds builds the tension here expertly and it’s one of the film’s creepiest scenes. When Annie goes inside, the man is gone. A scene like this is what cements a possibility that these occurrences are all in Annie’s head.
Annie has a history of nervous breakdowns as we learn from Annie’s ex-husband Paul (Ed Brody). She knows something is stalking them but no one else has seen them, so it feels like she’s the Girl Who Cried Monster. It sounds like the film is balancing a lot of things, but it never feels crowded. Jessica Madsen turns in a strong performance as Annie, a character whose main drive is fighting for her daughter and protecting her. These nervous breakdowns bring a layer to Annie as a character, though I wanted to know more about her.
About the pacing in the film’s first 40 minutes, the storytelling is occasionally non-linear because we’re dropped directly into the action around the mid-point. It opens with Annie, shotgun cocked, looking through her house for her daughter Emily. The scene results in Annie being put in the back of a police cruiser.
After this scene, Annie and Emily first arrive at the house and then after the first night of haunting, Annie’s being interrogated by Sheriff Dickerson (a good Kristina Clifford) about Emily’s whereabouts. There’s a helpful audio cue when it skips forward in time to scenes like these – but I found this initially jarring and the placement of these scenes affected the flow of the first half. The pacing feels much smoother once we catch up with this first scene.
There was also one scene that I wanted more from. This is when Annie and Emily play flashlight tag in the cornfield and after some creepiness, Emily ends up on the roof of the home and Annie rushes to her and the scene ends. I liked the set-up of this scene and her being on the roof brought so much tension that I wanted to see what would happen.
Since we don’t see what happens, there aren’t any consequences to Emily for being on the roof. That’s the thing with the first half, there’s great atmosphere, creepiness and effective build-up, but there are few consequences for these characters. That all changes in the second half when all the consequences come as it dives into the creature feature. Dark Light had my curiosity from the beginning but as soon as I saw the creature it had my attention and I was hooked. It made the first portion worth the wait as it went into the “action” side of the film where Annie tries to find her daughter and faces the nightmare head-on.
Some horror films thrive on the audience not seeing the monster and the monster being scariest in their imaginations. Here, both aspects are done well as the atmosphere and creepiness of the first half is good, but as soon as Reynolds shows the monster, Dark Light shines.
The monster looks great and it’s designed by Aaron Sims (known for creating the monster on Stranger Things). I appreciated that it’s a man in a suit with practical effects and not a CGI creation. The monster’s screeches are nightmarish, too, and these creatures who also like cornfields make the aliens in Signs look friendly (keep in mind that these villains are “humanoids” and not aliens, by the way).
Learning the background of these humanoids was fascinating as we’re told this information by the film’s conspiracy theorist character Walter Simms (Gerald Tyler). I won’t spoil what makes these creatures tick and how they survive, but I wanted to know more about them and how long they’ve been at Annie’s house. I was curious how she and them had never crossed paths before, because the Flashlight Monster’s “home” looks like it’s been there for centuries. If we ever see these monsters again, I’m curious to see where Reynolds can take the mythology.
When it comes to the horror, the second half is more focused on the action but there are still solid scares in the third act, including a great scene with a toy chest. I counted three effective jump scares within 3-minute span, as Reynolds knows when to scare us when we’re relaxed and it’s an effective tactic. The kills are fun in general but there’s one memorable one that looks so great with the effects used. (I won’t spoil it in this review, but I talk to Reynolds about it in my interview with him, which can be found here.) This film’s more about the thrills, especially in the show-stopping third act where Annie finds where the creatures live. It’s creepy and it’s a great set, and this finale is worth the wait.