Sometimes, no matter how hard they may try, no matter how powerful the bond of blood, siblings just don’t fit together. Shared childhoods don’t equate to shared minds, and it’s easy for members of the same brood to get separated while navigating the twisting, dense forest of maturation, possibly even lost, never to be found again. Devil in the Dark sometimes seems to be a little confused itself as to how to tell its horror story of estranged brothers reuniting for a hunting trip in the mountains of British Columbia, but what it lacks in traditional scares is made up for with a creepy depiction of fading familial relationship, one that lingers in the back of the minds of those who may have at one time or another wished things could have turned out differently.
When Adam returns to the small town where he grew up after years spent in “the big city,” he finds his older brother, Clint, has slipped comfortably into the shoes of their father. Clint works at the same blue-collar construction company (though at a slightly higher position than the old man, he notes), dresses in the same sort of thick flannel shirts, and even raises a similar two-child family with his local-gal wife in the brothers’ old house, clinging to the familiarity of a decades-old couch and wallpaper like an inheritance. Clint lives in the past, deeply nestled into a lifestyle where he feels safe and comfortable; the ways of his father are what makes sense to him today, and he seems intent on reliving those fond memories through emulation.
Adam, however, does not look back on his youth with rose-tinted glasses. Connections are often based on shared interests, and for a boy uninterested in shooting things or haunting the same meager establishments day in and day out, there were none to be found at home – even with those who love him most. Looking in from the outside is a lonely place to be, especially within one’s own family, and so Adam has returned, searching for something he’s clearly never found throughout all his other wanderings: closeness. And so the two head off into the endless woods, an endless green abyss where getting back to the basics is a necessity, not a wistful whim. Alone and secluded, Adam and Clint discover that kinship cannot be forced if it is to survive, as the differences that keep people apart will always be bubbling near the surface, lurking in the shadows, ready to burst forth, a malicious force that ruins both holiday meals and overdue male bonding time, sometimes violently.
Devil in the Dark establishes a foreboding tone quickly, emphasizing the vast and empty space its characters must wander through to find each other, with mesmerizing images of weak light surrounded by impenetrable gloom that surely hides untold dangers. Unfortunately, the early spooky vibes are a bit sapped of their power with a prolonged setting of the stage that seems unfocused, trying to flesh out more than necessary (an awkward musical montage of sorts doesn’t help either). The first meeting between Adam and Clint speaks volumes, even if they don’t, and a subsequent family dinner fills in the rest of the blanks about how they see both the life and each other, but crossing the threshold and embarking on the journey is put off for some meandering character development that is either redundant or never pays off. At its essence, Devil in the Dark is a personal story between two men linked by a last name but separated by the past; dwelling on the present world around them does little to illuminate this any further, and the film is in danger of stalling before too long.
Thankfully, that ominous atmosphere finally returns when the pair sets out for the hills, and Devil in the Dark reengages. Absorbing widescreen compositions capture the craggy landscape and thick woodland, the fir green and grey hues instilling a constant sense of chilly dread. At night, flickering fires and tiny headlamps struggle to pierce through the blackness, shrinking the outside world and isolating the issues slowly being exposed. People who for years could not not see each other now have nothing else to look at, nowhere to hide; they have no choice but to try and traverse the gulf between them.
Now would be the time when souls are laid bare, when emotional explanations begin building the bridge, but Devil in the Dark doesn’t take that route. Adam and Clint grew up in a place where feelings aren’t easily expressed, where men’s words don’t mean as much as their actions. At first the stilted, sometimes clunky dialogue can seem like the result of a weak script, but eventually the strength of these labored exchanges begins to take effect. These brothers simply don’t know how to talk to one another anymore, and listening to them try becomes painfully recognizable to anyone with small town roots. Both actors do an admirable job with the stiffness, but its Dan Payne’s Clint that ultimately delivers the subtle but strong foundation. His normally passive face shows small cracks as he grapples with a lack of understanding this person with whom he shares so much and so little, a last living link to the father he idolized that challenges his fond memories. Clint wasn’t given the tools for such a delicate job as emotional probing, and the frustration he feels at failing in his duties as the eldest to make things right grows steadily apparent, increasingly heartbreaking. What must Dad think, possibly watching from above?
Though Adam has initiated the story, the real conflict is Clint’s own. Bird’s eye shots slowly progress from the neat, orderly lines of the workyard to the twisting trails on the mountain, eventually culminating in lonely shots of a castaway in the dark, with no visible paths as Clint’s world unravels. Yes, this is a horror film, but though a few supernatural scares do arise as the boys discover that something else resides on this mountain, and the hunters are being hunted, those sparse moments are shallow and fleeting, ultimately coming too little and too late to please fans of traditional genre beats. Instead, the true horror of Devil in the Dark comes not from without, but from what Clint holds within, and the regret that can come with loosing the ties that bind.
‘Devil in the Dark’ is available on VOD nationwide in the U.S. from Momentum Pictures on Tuesday, March 7th.