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In Movies & TV Reviews

Keri Russell stars in "Dark Skies."

Horror flick "Dark Skies" doesn't deserve to be left in the dark

Some movies never get a chance, even from the studios that made them.

Most of the time, they deserve it. Take last year's "The Apparition," a remarkably sleepy PG-13 horror film that attempted to make knotted clothes and mold terrifying, and managed to make the traditional haunted house story confusing. Before its release, Warner Bros. smartly cut the amount of theaters to 810 and refused to screen the film for critics.

"Dark Skies" received similar treatment from its distributor. The ad campaign clearly didn't know what to do with the film's extraterrestrial elements, resulting in a trailer that hilariously revealed too much in the end. Plus, the studio didn't screen the film for critics and then dropped on a dramatically excessive embargo – a studio-enforced starting point for when critics can publish their reviews.

In case the horror flick needed more bad buzz, a late night screening of "Dark Skies" in New York filled with critics and bloggers had a projector malfunction and refused to start. Matt Singer of Criticwire even wrote a piece after the debacle, jokingly wondering if the movie actually existed.

Well, as it turns out, "Dark Skies" does, in fact, exist. And, in even more surprising news, it's not all that bad.

Keri Russell (once Felicity, now an undercover KGB officer on "The Americans") and Josh Hamilton star as an everyday married couple living in a perfectly normal suburban neighborhood. Of course, there are a few problems bubbling under the surface – Hamilton can't find a job, their oldest son (Dakota Goyo from "Real Steel") is a little moody and hangs out with a snotty neighborhood kid.

As you'd expect, however, weird things start happening. It starts innocently enough with a mess left in the kitchen, but it escalates to strange pranks. The family's bowls and dishes are stacked into a strange pattern, and all of their photos are taken from their frames. At first, Russell and Hamilton assume it's one of the kids acting out, but after a close encounter of the third kind, a new suspect emerges – one with big black eyes, a skinny frame and a desire for more than just Reese's Pieces.

There's not much original or unique to the story in "Dark Skies." Writer-director Scott Stewart (the brains – or lack thereof – behind the theology thriller double feature "Priest" and "Legion") follows the well-tread haunted house path pretty consistently. One parent will start to believe; the other will be dubious. Eventually, they decide to believe in their supernatural activity and get the help of a strange elder (J.K. Simmons, surrounded by cats and newspaper clippings).

The only real deviation from the typical haunted house routine – it should come as no surprise that "Dark Skies" comes from the producers of "Paranormal Activity" and "Insidious" – is that the culprits are aliens instead of ghosts. Even the extraterrestrial elements, however, aren't exactly dripping with creativity. When the family sits down for a tense final meal, awaiting the aliens and talking about memories, it becomes apparent that Stewart has essentially written a suburban version of "Signs."

Since the story is derivative, the surprises then come in how effectively "Dark Skies" still plays. The cast is far above average for most PG-13 horror flicks, especially Russell and Hamilton, who manage to make their bickering feel natural instead of like filler. Goyo also gets a few moments of sincere sweetness as he awkward flirts with a girl (Annie Thurman) from the neighborhood.

Stewart's screenplay spends a surprising amount of time following our characters and getting to know them, and thanks to the cast, it pays off. I actually cared about this family and whether they would make it out together, as opposed to most horror movies where the characters are just chatty future victims.

Most importantly, "Dark Skies" is consistently creepy. The moody, shadowy direction fills the film with dread, and many of the set piece moments are genuinely chill-inducing. That's the effect of having a good cast in a horror movie; it grounds the scares in reality and makes the viewer involved emotionally.

Stewart, who put laughable creatures like a spider granny and a spider ice cream man in "Legion," still has problems distinguishing scary ideas from simply silly ones, and yes, there are a few jump scares (it wouldn't be a PG-13 horror movie without them). But while "Dark Skies" never quite makes the leap to flat-out scary, it's almost always chilling and has enough spooky moments to merit its apparently suspect existence.

Theaters and showtimes for Dark Skies Rating:


Photodavie | Feb. 27, 2013 at 7:55 a.m. (report)

What always kills me with this type of movie is the obvious, move houses. Or at least get to a hotel for a while. If 1,000 birds fly into my house, I'm so moving, the next day. For the safety of my family. I know, i know, it's a movie. Just gets me every time.

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