Fantasia Film Festival Review: Coming Home in the Dark (2021)

Featured image: Daniel Gillies as Mandrake and Tubs in Coming Home in the Dark. (Photo credit: Gold Fish Creative.)

Directed by James Ashcroft. Screenplay by James Ashcroft, Eli Kent, based on the short story by Owen Marshall. Starring Daniel Gillies, Erik Thomson, Miriama McDowell. Coming Home in the Dark is currently available to watch On Demand as part of the Fantasia Film Festival for its Quebec Premiere.

Even after watching so many thrillers or horror films, some moments can still make me audibly gasp. That’s surely the case with James Ashcroft’s thriller Coming Home in the Dark. It made me gasp not necessarily because of moments that are shocking in their brutality – though there are those moments in this New Zealand thriller – but because of, in this instance, sly direction by Ashcroft and great blocking.

The film starts with a normal family vacation – which already sounds like a standard Aussie outback horror. The family’s going to get away from the city, and the conversations feature great banter between parents Hoaggie (Erik Thomson) and Jill (Miriama McDowell), and teens and real-life brothers Jordan (Frankie Paratene) and Maika (Billy Paratene). They’re embracing nature – exploring a large canyon, which let’s the cinematography shine.

The first sense of unease is a subtle touch: One of the sons look up at the top of the crater and see a pair of men standing up on top. They wave at him; and they walk off. It’s immediately unsettling because we don’t know the intent, but we soon have an idea.

They find themselves in for what is best described as taking the tension of the home invasion genre and putting it into a moving vehicle. It’s arguably more tense and taut this way. It’s intimate with less ways to escape. Ashcroft is up to that task. The family escape to nature; but that works against them here as there’s nowhere to run. Trapped by the vastness of nature, it’s probably one of the most open “home invasion” films you’ll watch.

ComingHomeInTheDark 4 - Credit- Gold_Fish_Creative - 72dpi RGB
Daniel Gillies as Mandrake and Tubs in Coming Home in the Dark. (Photo credit: Gold Fish Creative.)

Though, I did really like the villains – Mandrake (Daniel Gilliies) and Tubs (Matthias Luafutu) – more when they’re cloaked in mystery in the first half, as two drifters doing this to any unsuspecting family. “This is business as usual – the next meal, the next car, just happy coincidence,” Mandrake tries to convince them that it’s not a targeted situation.

When that’s happening, it feels reminiscent of The Strangers and that random “because you were home attitude,” as these drifters seem to get their kicks from any average family unfortunate enough to cross their path. It’s intriguing learning they have a bone to pick with the family patriarch Hoaggie for his past actions; while that engrossing mystery is gone with the terror of “no motive,” the film only loses mystery, but not its power and brutality. That side of the narrative is important for driving the film, too,  as it’s really how the morals in the film are explored.

Mandrake is a terrifying villain in his unpredictability, never quite knowing what he’s thinking or about to do, but you know it’s bad news. One great thing about this film are the Kiwi accents, just because they sound almost comforting (I think because I just associate it with Taika Waititi and his Korg character), where it’s a sense of security amongst the anxiety here as I expect the Kiwi accent to be funny.

The accent works in Mandrake’s favour, where the dialogue is more unsettling because of how casual the dialogue is, where it sounds like he’s leading a family vacation. He’s calm and collected, ready to go with the ups and downs of the trip. It’s wholly compelling, as he mixes casual humour – like when he sees that the radio in the car doesn’t work – and dark humour, too. Gillies gives such a strong performance, commanding the film as soon as he’s introduced.

SCORE: 75/100

Coming Home in the Dark is currently playing On Demand as part of the Fantasia Film Festival, and will be available to watch through Wednesday, August 25.

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