Cast: Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, J.K. Simmons, Dakota Goyo, Kaden Rockett
Running time: 97mins
The lowdown: Another family-in-peril chiller from the producers of Insidious, Sinister and Paranormal Activity, Dark Skies should disappear into the night as just one more also ran. But, with Legion and Priest writer/director Scott Stewart punching above his normal weight class, the ambitious plot incorporates economic woes, parental anxiety, and a coming-of-age story into an effective alien abduction tale. Low-key horror certainly, but one that spins familiar elements into something fresh.
The full verdict: The producers of Dark Skies clearly abide by the Roger Corman school of filmmaking. Namely, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But, do make it again. And again.
So, like their other recent shockers, this also has an all-American family beset by personal issues and paranormal entities.
Mom and dad will be played by recognisable actors who can pass for suburbanites – Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne (just) in Insidious, Ethan Hawke and Juliet Rylance in Sinister, and Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton here.
Children are talented unknowns (Goyo and Rockett) capable of doing both cute and terrifying, and photographic equipment is on hand for spooky plot information the characters have missed.
An older, respected actor is brought in to deliver Act Two exposition to let everyone know what’s going on before the climactic mayhem ensues – Barbara Hershey in Insidious, Vincent D’Onofrio in Sinister and J.K. Simmons with this one.
But as with Sinister, Dark Skies scores through a strong script that values characterisation as much as shocks and benefits from Russell and Hamilton’s anxious performances as Lacey and Daniel Barrett, the couple targeted by otherworldly agents, Russell giving her best performance since the indie gem Waitress.
Director Stewart is unafraid of slow-burning tension, the first half of the movie unfolding carefully to notch up the dread, dropping in one spectacular bird attack on the family home to reassure the audience fireworks are coming.
Mysterious goings-on such as the youngest family member mentioning nightly visits from “the Sandman” are well-placed alongside economic woes as one Barrett is out of work and the next may well soon be.
A 4th July family meal provides a breather before the climactic assault; a great example of look-behind-you jumps and real terror.
Plot holes are readily apparent if you want them, chief of which is the Barretts apparently never having seen an episode of The X-Files (or the X-Files rip-off series also called Dark Skies).
But, if you’re prepared to overlook this, welcome to one of the year’s best frighteners.