The potential for terror is evident all around us if you take even a moment to look from extreme situations to our most mundane moments, but the latter hurt the most. We’ve all been on road trips with our loved ones and enjoyed the company and the scenery, but all we need is a misstep for everything to collapse. Coming home in the dark catches that misstep and a few more when a family sees a good day turn into shocking violence, nerve-wracking terror, and worse.
A car winds its way along the New Zealand coast and its occupants are oblivious to an abandoned vehicle nearby as the family drives to a beautiful spot for a peaceful picnic. Alan (Erik Thomson) and his wife Jill (Miriam McDowell) enjoy the break, even if their two sons (Billy Paratene, Frankie Paratene) are not fully on board either with the trip or with their new stepfather. Everything is forgotten, however, when two strangers approach and the family does not realize in time the difficulties they have found. Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and tubs (Matthias Luafutu) aren’t there for small talk, even though the former is terribly chatty, and instead it’s slaughter, terror and a lesson in past sins that are on the new vacation schedule.
Director / co-writer James Ashcroft and co-author Eli Kent Coming Home in the Dark delivers barely 90 minutes of suspense, and although it hits the occasional snag, it still works as an incredibly tense experience. The performances are spot on, Matt Henley’s cinematography is familiar with both beauty and horror, and it all leads to a satisfying downside of an ending – if not the one you are dying to expect.
The two men are bad news to begin with, but the family is slow to respond in meaningful ways. Instead of fighting or resisting, they follow men’s demands and think – and hope – that compliance is their key to freedom. As the seconds, minutes, and hours pass, it becomes very clear that inaction is a death sentence. “When you look back, this will be the moment you wish you did something,” says Mandrake, and it’s a powerful lesson that the family learns the hard way. The filmmakers go a fine line hammering this theme home, and it moves smoothly and surprisingly from irritating to eye-opening. Characters who don’t act – to save themselves or others – are difficult, if not impossible, to sympathize, but the frustration with Alan’s complacency soon finds a deeper meaning.
No spoilers here, but Coming Home in the Dark suggests this wasn’t a chance encounter. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t – New Zealand is a small country, as Mandrake reminds you – but genre stories are no stranger to stories of past sins that devastatingly catch up with sinners. The question for the audience becomes a question of fault and punishment as we endure this long night with victims and oppressors alike.
Villains tend to be the most noticeable roles in genre films, and Coming Home in the Dark doesn’t deviate from this particular norm, as Gillies gives viewers an electric monster as a gift. He speaks softly, even if the hints are grotesque and terrible and the glint in his eyes seems to be lit by the fires of burning bodies and past carnage. Truths and lies mingle in every utterance, and he seems just as capable of enjoying your company as he is of carving you from limb to limb. Luafutu is tall and rarely speaks, and yet he feels less threatening in comparison – although that ranges from threatening to very threatening.
However, it is Thomson who much of the film depends on as he is the focus of male anger for various reasons. As mentioned earlier, his failure to take advantage of more than a few missed opportunities can only be frustrating at first. As the film unfolds, our relationship with it transforms into something else as it becomes something more and less than just a victim. You’ll feel different about him when the credits roll in and it’s a fascinating journey to get there at times.
Coming home in the dark is a thrilling ride that combines cruel behavior with an inviting landscape and is not for the faint of heart. Bring the family, but don’t forget the kids!
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