Keri Russell in ‘Dark Skies.’
A friend who did special effects on low-budget movies for many years once swore to me that it’s impossible for a horror movie to lose money if it’s made for less than five million dollars. Granted, he said this before movie piracy got so big. But even now, it’s easy to see how cheap horror can be a financial sure bet.
Luckily, it can still be good horror, too, now and then. However mainstream it has become, however many millions of dollars studios are willing to spend on pop bastardizations like Twilight, very often it’s the horror movies made with little more than a tiny budget and an innovative twist that come out of nowhere and revolutionize the genre every decade or so.
Producer Jason Blum has made a name for himself with exactly that kind of movie. In 2007, he produced Paranormal Activity, which cost around $15,000, and went on to be the most profitable film of all time. Since then, he’s shepherded the release of Insidious and Sinister, films made for less than $5 million that were huge hits.
Besides the tens of millions they made in profits, what these films have in common is that they were all interesting low-budget films that put some kind of smart spin on their respective horror sub-genres. They weren’t perfect, by any means, but together they did signal a certain kind of comeback for micro-budget horror moviemaking.
Blum is the man behind Dark Skies, as well. Or rather, he’s the man behind the man behind Dark Skies, as he got writer-director Scott Stewart the $3.5 million to make it. However, horror fans haven’t been nearly as kind to it as they were to Blum’s past investments. Which is strange, because Dark Skies is yet another film on his record that achieves far beyond its miniscule budget. It’s intriguing, suspenseful and as creepy as any PG-13 film has a right to be. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s also structured quite a bit like Paranormal Activity, with a suburban couple (and in this case, their kids) under siege from strange occurrences in their home that get worse and worse until they’re forced to consult an expert on freaky stuff, who explains to them exactly which type of freaky stuff they’ve got going on.
In this case, of course, it’s aliens. And honestly, I think that’s a big part of the problem—both with the poor audience response (although, of course, Dark Skies has already more than made back its budget) and the film’s actual shortcomings. Has there ever really been a good alien abduction movie? I’ve seen all of the ones that seem to have the most fans—Fire in the Sky, The Fourth Kind, Communion—and they’re all varying degrees of lame. I mean, M. Night Shyamalan spent $70 million on the ridiculous Signs, and just for not including something as stupid as “swing away,” Dark Skies is at least as good as that movie.
But still, I can see why alien-visitation flicks don’t do it for a lot of people. Whatever happens, you probably are fairly prepared for it. The aliens are likely to look something like greys, if they’re ever even shown. They are likely to be doing some abducting, maybe a little experimenting, and probably a boatload of probing. Not to say that’s not ooky, but hey, if Cartman can get through it, how scared of it can we really be? It’s certainly nowhere near the rush of Paranormal Activity’s it’s-ghosts-no-wait-holy-crap-it’s-demons trick.
That’s probably why the first half of Dark Skies is so much better than the second. Stewart builds a disturbing mood, focusing on a husband (Josh Hamilton) and wife (Keri Russell) whose lives are already pretty much collapsing in on them, between job troubles, mounting bills and alienated (no pun intended) kids. But when their youngest child (Kadan Rockett) starts acting weird, and inexplicable things happen in the night, everything goes crazy, fast. Even though we know it’s all going to turn out to be aliens, there’s a palpable sense of dread about what might be happening and how bad it could get. That’s why it seems like more of a relief than anything when the E.T. expert (J.K. Simmons) lays it all out for them.
Even so, Dark Skies does have a twist left in it, and even when it kind of falls apart in the last act, it has some effective moments. Ultimately, it’s yet another film that’s re-asserting the power of the low-budget horror flick.