Having just watched a pretty paint-by-numbers type of ghostly story in Hellgate the other day, I was slightly on the defensive when it came to whatever spectral/haunting-y film I’d watch next. Thankfully, Dark Circles turned out to be a solid, creepy bit of business that absolutely shows you can actually do a whole lot right your first run out of the gate in genre’ territory. Writer/director Paul Soter (of Broken Lizard fame) brings a clear awareness and love for the horror genre’ but doesn’t solely draw from past work to create his film – in many ways his awareness actually helps to drive up tension (I’ll give a couple of examples here in a few).
The story revolves around Alex (Johnathon Schaech – Quarantine, That Thing You Do!) and Penny (Pell James – Lincoln Lawyer, Zodiac) as a couple in the big city struggling to cut ties and move out to the rural expanse to raise their soon-to-arrive child. They’d be crazy not to take the deal on the house, it is at one point said. The intro to the movie thrusts us into a creepy dream sequence involving a bloody, black-haired woman and Penny trying to protect her son Tanner in his crib. There is a hyper-clever switcheroo here that took me a bit by surprise and was quite neat – you’ll know it when you see it.
Anyway, she wakes from the dream and we see she is actually only still pregnant and things seem quasi-normal. Pell James’ Penny has a warmth to her here early on and kind of Jenny Garth-by-way-of-Leslie-Mann which is disarming and somehow familiar. Alex, on the other hand, seems kind of pleasantly self involved and passive about everything – his band, leaving the city, staying in the city, their soon to arrive child etc. He is nice enough but not very engaging. After the requisite ‘ribbing from friends about the move’ scene one evening, they are unexpectedly thrust into parenthood early by Penny going into labor. Keeping with his unthreatening self absorbtion, Alex misses the phone calls and ultimately arrives at the hospital too late for the birth.
This places us directly into the bulk of the story – the move to the rural house, the breakdown in communications between the couple brought on by severe sleep deprivation and the increasingly bizarre visions they both seem to exhibit in and around the house. None of this is played for laughs on the screen, but, as any parent can tell you, is not far off from reality and is amusing for it. You could tell me after a long child-caused, sleepless stretch that you once thought you were in your living room talking to Archduke Ferdinand about the Brewers’ pitching staff and I’d believe you. So it rings pretty solidly true.
However, the strange visions of a dark-haired, crazy-looking woman increase in frequency and in threat and are all (for the most part) handled quite well. These affect both Alex and Penny pretty equally and the range from strange to downright scary (freaking baby monitor – I knew it would play a role and it did, but was well done) was pretty refreshing. In fact, you start to expect certain jump moments in different scenes during this part of the film and when they don’t come you end up even more on edge. Cellar doors, reflections, mirrors, refrigerators and other stock tools of the trade are used or teased in such a way you’re not ever 100% sure where the scares might come from. Some might be off-put by this level of self-awareness but I thought it was an effective way to keep the audience unclear as to what was happening. Even more so when Alex hires a wide-eyed babysitter working at a grocery store to afford he and his wife some much-needed rest.
As our poor couple trip and stumble and fall into the final act, we’re starting to wonder what might really be going on and what the real story could be. Is this woman-vision actually real? Is it potentially the manifestation of one or the other’s frustrations? Is is a vengeful ghost-type situation? The film never really settles on one thing or other (from early on) and I found the dancing between possibilities to be smart and sharp and not sloppy as one might expect given the subject matter.
I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up a couple (debatable) issues that relate to the film. The first I need to be very vague on because I don’t want to give away the structure of the story or what is happening to Alex and Penny. There is an exposition device that is used near the end of the film that helps to bring things together. Initially I was very positive on this but after thinking a bit about I’m not sure if it was the right choice. The imagery shown at that time and all the lead up to that point could have potentially worked on its own without exposition. But, it might not’ve worked at all. It is very hard to say but it did get me thinking.
The other issue is the blending of possible fantasy and reality that occurs through Alex and Penny’s eyes as they sink lower into sleep deprivation, anger and confusion. Since we’re in our living rooms watching and not there, we get the full gambit of imagery but our two leads are only privy to what their eyes see. To that end, there seems to be a couple cheats here and there that don’t necessarily hold up to the ‘rules’ set out by the film. However, these cheats are absolutely not glaring and certainly in a grey area.
Finally, from a technical standpoint, the film is well assembled and very well shot. It has a nice look to it that magnifies and softens depending on what is going on. It definitely felt very professional and sharp. Also, the song in the opening credits sequence is freaking awesome – made a point to myself to try to track it down.
So all in all, I was very pleasantly surprised by Paul Soter’s Dark Circles. It was sharp, interesting, unsettling and outside of a couple sound-spike jump scares (lame!) was a good bit of originality and execution in a populated area of the genre’.