This review of Coming Home in the Dark is part of our coverage of the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival.
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 it’s the latter which hurt the most. We’ve all been on road trips with loved ones, enjoying the company and the scenery, but all it takes is one misstep for it all to come crashing down. Coming Home in the Dark captures that misstep, and a few more, as one family sees a good day descend into shocking violence, nerve-shredding terror, and worse.
A car winds down the New Zealand coastline, its occupants taking no notice of an abandoned vehicle nearby, as the family within heads to a beautiful locale for a peaceful picnic. Alan (Erik Thomson) and his wife Jill (Miriama McDowell) are enjoying the break even if her two sons (Billy Paratene, Frankie Paratene) aren’t quite fully onboard with either the trip or their new-ish stepdad. All is forgotten, though, when two strangers approach and the family fails to recognize in time the trouble that’s found them. Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and Tubs (Matthias Luafutu) aren’t there for smalltalk, although the former is awfully chatty, and instead it’s carnage, terror, and a lesson in past sins that are on the new vacation itinerary.
Director/co-writer James Ashcroft and co-writer Eli Kent deliver a tight ninety minutes of ratcheting tension with Coming Home in the Dark, and while it hits the occasional snag it still works as a terrifically tense experience. The performances are spot on, the cinematography by Matt Henley is as comfortable with beauty as it is with horror, and it all builds to a satisfyingly downer of an ending — albeit not the one you’re necessarily expecting.
The two men are bad news from the very start, but the family is slow to react in any meaningful way. Rather than fight or resist they go along with the men’s demands thinking — and hoping — that compliance is their key to freedom. As the seconds, minutes, and hours tick by, though, it’s made extremely clear that inaction is a death sentence. “When you look back, this is gonna be the moment you’ll wish you’d done something,” says Mandrake, and it’s a powerful lesson that the family learns the hard way. The filmmakers walk a fine line hammering home that theme, 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 with, but the frustration towards Alan’s complacency soon finds a deeper meaning.
No spoilers here, but Coming Home in the Dark suggests the possibility that this was no random encounter. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t — New Zealand is a small country, as Mandrake reminds them — but genre tales are no strangers to stories about past sins catching up to the sinners in devastating fashion. The question for viewers becomes one of culpability and punishment as we endure this long night with victims and oppressors alike.
Villains are typically the showier roles in genre movies, and Coming Home in the Dark doesn’t stray from that particular norm as Gillies gifts viewers with an electric monster. He speaks softly even as the insinuations are grotesque and horrifying, and the glint in his eye seems lit by the fires of burning bodies and past carnage. Truths and lies commingle in his every utterance, and he looks as capable of enjoying your company as he does of carving you limb from limb. Luafutu is large and barely speaks, and yet he feels less threatening by comparison — although that’s on a scale from threatening to very threatening.
It’s Thomson, though, who much of the film hinges on as he becomes the focus of the men’s ire for various reasons. As mentioned, his failure to act through more than a few missed opportunities can’t help but frustrate at first. As the film unfolds our relationship to him morphs into something different as he becomes something that’s both more and less than merely a victim. You’ll feel differently towards him by the time the credits roll, and it’s an at times fascinating journey getting there.
Coming Home in the Dark is a tensely thrilling ride pairing cruel behaviors with an inviting landscape, and it’s not for the faint of heart. Bring the family, but don’t forget the kids!