Dr. Michael Cayle thought leaving the chaotic lifestyle of New York City behind for the quiet, small town of Ashborough would bring his family closer together. Soon after arriving, however, he discovers the town’s deepest secret: a terrifying and controlling race of creatures that live amongst the darkness in the woods behind his home.
In the bygone era of 2013, I reviewed a couple of Chiller Films originals, the products of that most welcome addition to basic cable, Chiller TV. Larry Fessenden’s “Beneath,” concerning unlikeable teens being eaten by a giant fish puppet, was somehow much better than it should have been. By that I mean barely passable.
The second up for consideration was “Dead Souls,” a confounding parade of ghosts, senseless dog murder, zombies and Bill Moseley looking embarrassed. One of the worst of last year’s batch (though it was released in 2012), and we’re talking about the year I had to dedicate hundreds of words to “Midget Zombie Takeover.” Could the third time be that proverbial charm?
How I miss Fessenden’s big-ass fish, friends. Brought to us from the creative trio behind “Dead Souls” is “Deep in the Darkness,” a stab at Lovecraftian thrills (if you hadn’t gathered from the title) that manages the identical feat of its predecessor by buckling under a hailstorm of inept ideas. Colin Theys returns to direct John Doolan’s treatment of another Michael Laimo novel, whom I’ve never read so will accuse of no wrongdoings. However, the odds of a paperback bearing his name gracing the top of my toilet tank are dwindling.
Dr. Michael Cayle (Sean Patrick Thomas, “The Fountain”) uproots his family from The Big Apple to open a local practice in Ashborough, a quiet New Hampshire community. Initially chagrined by the absence of a pay television provider (and perhaps his own inability to properly research a town he plans to grow old in), he’s encouraged to embrace the simpler life by spouse Cristine, portrayed by poor man’s Jessica Biel, Kristen Bush. Young daughter Jessica (Athena Grant) isn’t so keen on the locale, vomiting the moment she steps onto the property.
Classing the joint up is Dean Stockwell, who plays a much more integral part as neighbor Phil than expected. I’ve grown so accustomed to the name-above-the-title star occupying less screen time than an extra in these movies (looking at you, Danny Trejo and Eric Roberts), it was a pleasant surprise to see him in a bona fide supporting turn. Phil lives with grandson Tyler (Anthony Del Negro, graduating from his small role in “Dead Souls”) and terminally ill wife Rosy (Marty Gargle), who is also afflicted with deep facial scars.
The Cayles nestle into daily routine as Michael arranges his office in the house. The first warning flag waved in his face (and ignored) arrives during a hike through the woods with Phil. They come upon a stone altar in a clearing, and it is calmly explained that the ritual of animal sacrifice is still practiced there to this day. Guess whose turn it is to perform the next god-appeasing slaughter? The new guy, of course! Michael’s reaction to this demand is so blasé, one wonders if this sort of thing happens in every town he moves to.
The point when local harlot Lauren (the alarmingly pale Cara Loften) dies in Michael’s arms in the driveway after staggering out from apparently the ether, “Darkness” begins unraveling. Once his back is turned, the corpse vanishes and reappears shortly after in the middle of the village, blamed on a hit-and-run. Further baffling our hero, the townsfolk carry the body into the woods, prompting the query of why an excuse for her death was warranted if they were just going to do something bizarre and illegal anyway.
That night, Michael is approached in his study by Zellis (Remember Blanche Baker from “Sixteen Candles?”), the town matriarch. She states he must perform an emergency surgery to compensate for his lack of goat-killing, and the room is quickly filled with the Isolates, a group of ancient humanoids who occupy the surrounding woodland caves. The makeup effects utilized to bring the Isolates to life are impressive, as are the predatory physical performances from the actors under the rags and spirit gum. Unfortunately, they populate the resulting sequence for a lengthy stretch that renders them less effective when the need to menace arises.
Terrified, Michael attempts to sacrifice his dog at the altar, even though it had been made clear he’d already missed the boat on that one. And seriously, what the hell do these films have against dogs? The breaking point is reached before the finale drops into sight, as he is dragged into the caves a second time to administer free health care. For a race that’s millennia old, these things rely mighty heavily on modern medicine. If he’d stuck with the gig, the Isolates would be waking him in the wee hours to look at a rash.
Stick with it the doc does not, as he packs the girls into the van for some overdue fleeing. They are stopped at the city limits by the sheriff, who is easily thwarted after Michael hears Tyler shriek in the distance. By some Biblical leap in logic or editing snafu, the family deduces that Tyler must be at their place, and abandon freedom to return to the Isolate-infested homestead. Sure enough, he’s found in the basement being tortured by Zellis. How is Tyler suddenly there, you may ask? How does anyone get anywhere in this damn movie? They materialize at will.
A succession of false endings leads to the promised land of closing credits, including another aborted escape attempt and a resolution foreshadowed earlier by a package that is never explained and forgotten until its inexplicable presence is required. Just for good measure, a twist is tacked on in a scene that owes “Rosemary’s Baby” royalties.
Theys builds tension well and clearly knows his way around a production, but he’s again betrayed by material that shifts from tedium to derailed lunacy and never recovers. Though this is Steinbeck compared to “Dead Souls,” that is paying very little in the way of a compliment. The bland characters don’t help to elevate, and are only made tolerable by the fact that many meet grisly ends. “Deep in the Darkness” wastes even Stockwell..
And someone please answer me, what is this beef with dogs all about? To be fair, the pet evades becoming a midnight snack for subterranean monsters, but the intent was there. Lay off the canines next time, boys. Perhaps I’ll be nicer.