“Coming Home in the Dark” initially feels like another entry in the horror film subcategory in which gently pampered city dwellers head to the countryside to be terrorized by the locals. But while it stuck to that template for a while, this debut feature from New Zealand filmmaker James Ashcroft soon reveals another layer of story that complicates our sympathies. Throughout, the barbaric intensity of the main predicament continues to tighten the screws on audiences, raising questions about how far a film can go to make audiences anxious and scared before it starts to feel like harassment masquerading as something more rarified.
The story begins with slow-tracking shots across a deserted highway, showing an abandoned car on the side of the road, personal belongings strewn about, the driver’s side door open. It’s a stunning opening shot, and there are many more moments like it: beautiful, ominous, unsettling, using the landscape in a way that is simultaneously threatening/secluded and has otherworldly beauty. Ashcroft—who co-wrote the script with Eli Kent, of the short story by Owen Marshall—has David Cronenberg’s flair for precision and cool tone control, where filmmaking spooks audiences before the credits even finish. Something terrible will happen, maybe more than once, and you just have to wait.
The car belonged to the nuclear family who were on vacation. The father, Hoaggie (Erik Thomson), is a white man of Dutch descent who has long worked as a teacher and professor. His wife Jill (Miriama McDowell) appears to be Native, and their tousled-haired teenage sons, Maika and Jordan (Billy and Frankie Partene), are handsome, talkative, and obviously very close to each other and their mother (despite some unclear issues). with his father). Two family tormentors, who emerge from the bushes as the family relaxes after a picnic, demographically echo the family: there’s a charismatic white sadist named Mandrake (Daniel Gillies), after a magician; and a rock-cold Native man known as Tubs (Mathias Luafutu).
I mention the clash of cultures aspect of casting not because the film does a lot with it, but because it fails to really delve into it. This is the greatest missed opportunity of this film, which has a burning style but (unfortunately) questionable control over the greater meaning of what it shows us. It’s hard to say if this was a case of simple neglect and neglect or if filmmakers were afraid to go there because they didn’t want to over-complicate the torturer/tormented dynamic (or if they filmed differently because that’s what filmmakers are expected to do now, without stopping to think about the implications of that casting). The bad guys have an agenda and are ready to throw in some narrative twists with resonance ripped from the headlines. But their motivation in the end was quite easy. He’
Regardless: the film becomes something of a “Desperate Hour” or “Funny Game” or “Cape Fear” or “Key Largo”, with a self-absorbed man who verbally and physically abuses hostages with the help of one or more henchmen. who keep their own advice and hide their own secrets. The film’s opening is so devastatingly cruel that I don’t know if it could recover from it even if it took a more nuanced and sensitive approach to the dynamics of their captors and hostages. The film simply dies and never fully returns to artistic life except as a very cruel abstraction, Mandrake Max Cady’s discount manages a lot of cynical lines and musings (when he talks to other characters he’s often seen saying what he’s about to say to himself). alone if no one else is around) and sometimes commands or participates in barbaric acts.
The talent for filmmaking and acting on display is undeniable. You should expect to see editor-in-chief Annie Collins and cinematographer Matt Henley on big-budget action and horror films, and Gillies playing a ruthless, rambling villain if she wants to go that route. Nevertheless, even taking into account the mileage each viewer is different, “Coming Home in the Dark” settles into memory as a dazzling missed opportunity, the promise of a future classic at its best. This is a razor edged calling card.