31 Days of Hallowe’en 2021, Day 1: Coming Home in the Dark [2021]

Another October, another year in quarantine. At least some things have stayed constant. But October, my favourite part of the year – the spooks, the chills (figurative and literal), the cozy sweaters, the first-season head colds – is now upon us.

Every year, this time of year feels more like a rebirth to me than spring.

Even through another covid-sheltering (particularly as the general public and governments seem more than happy to pretend like we’re still not in the middle of a pandemic in which infections and hospital cases keep rising in the country that has the world’s worst death rate), at least I can safely celebrate the creepy season in my own way, live I’ve always done – with my yearly month-long horror-thon, now in its 9th year.

I’m still compiling a list of potential films for this month, led by festival line-ups. One day I really hope I’ll get to Sitges.

Enough preamble. This is not a recipe site.

image source: wikipedia

Tonight’s movie was Coming Home in the Dark, a chilling New Zealand offering that straddles the line between thriller and horror (by which I’ve always been both fascinated and perplexed). Directed by newcomer James Ashcroft, and adapted from Owen Marshall’s award-winning short story of the same name, there is very little set-up: a middle-aged couple is on a picnic with their older teenage sons when they are ambushed by a pair of men.

The story unfolds piecemeal over its brisk 88 minutes, with most of the events taking place in and around the car journey they are forced to take after being abducted.

Strong performances, taut camerawork and heightened ambient, background noise are punctuated by bursts of violence and tension amid small but unpredictable plot turns, making us, as viewers, feel as close as possible to the claustrophobic atmosphere.

With its emphasis on conversation to drive (pun not intended) the film’s psychological horror beats, much of that relies on the sole charismatic character, lead gunman Mandrake (Daniel Gillies), leaving the others to revert to genre tropes to define how and if we care about their fates as the story progresses.

But it was disappointing that Mandrake’s sidekick Tubs (Matthias Luafutu), seems to perpetuate the ‘noble savage’ stereotype: that, as BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of colour), we’re supposed to be “better” than the bad non-BIPOC characters, that we’re initially lapdogs of the smart, white character that runs the show, we say almost nothing throughout the whole film, then pop up at a crucial moment, all really having no agency throughout. It’s a moderate minus point, but surprising considering that the director himself is BIPOC (of Maori descent).

The first half of this film was a masterclass in tension, from tight shooting angles to heavy breathing to perfectly placed beats of silence. But once the road trip gets going and the couple seem to get away with testing their kidnappers’ limits multiple times relatively unscathed, the peril begins to wane, the characters flatten, the story stalls, and my interest was kept piqued only to find out the abductors’ motivations. By the end, there were neither winners not losers; the ride felt muddled, a bit like it had been doing car-park doughnuts across narrative tropes to try to keep us guessing, to subvert and skewer expectations, rather than stay the course on a more genuine, affecting journey through the moral relativism the story had been setting up. Perhaps a longer runtime might have left more room in the back for it.

Score: 🎃🎃🎃


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