Hulu’s Into the Dark collaboration with Blumhouse Television — a monthly series of films featuring a genre movie themed to a holiday from each month — is now nine episodes deep, but while there have been a couple of highlights (Down, Treehouse) and a lot of mediocrity, one thing has been notably absent all together. For a series bearing the Blumhouse moniker, the movies have been utterly devoid of scares or serious horror. We’ve gotten a scene or two delivering real creepiness, and obviously horrific things have happened, but the first eight episodes lean too often on comedy and curiosity rather than going for the visceral terror.
June’s entry, They Come Knocking, still falls prey to some of the series’ frequent issues, but it finally delivers on the horror front with an unsettling premise, some scares, and plenty of good, old-fashioned horror action.
Nathan (Clayne Crawford) and his two daughters — teenager Claire (Josephine Langford) and the younger Maggie (Lia McHugh) — are on a road trip to scatter his wife’s ashes. Val (Robyn Lively) died after a long and painful battle with cancer when he gave the go-ahead to take her off life support, and while Claire still hasn’t forgiven him, Maggie needs this trip to say goodbye. They park their camper a ways off the highway and set up camp, but their first night’s sleep is interrupted by knocking on the outer door. A pair of hooded, child-like figures are standing outside asking them to open up, and when Nathan refuses the not-so innocent-sounding voice suggests the family will have to come out sometime. The next morning they discover their truck’s engine has been vandalized beyond repair, and when Nathan goes walking for help, the two girls discover the daylight can be every bit as unnerving.
This is director Adam Mason‘s second go-round with the series, but while I’m Just F*cking With You can’t get out of its own way long enough for the story or characters to engage, They Come Knocking lets viewers feel the grief and building terror. We come to care about these three, and Mason does good work ramping up the intensity where needed.
Less effective is the far too frequent reliance on flashbacks. Early ones to when Val was still alive help highlight the dynamic and impending loss, but Mason returns to that well far too often. Worse, the film resorts to them in the third act when our focus should be on the increasing terror and tension of the present. It’s a trending weakness in the film as Mason also gives us audio and video flashbacks to scenes from earlier in the film itself, which is never less than obnoxious. Shoot and present it well enough, and you won’t need to remind viewers what they literally just watched and heard.
The ending also comes a bit too easy, although that’s more of an issue with the script by Shane & Carey Van Dyke. We’re given little to no explanation as to the little creepers’ backstory, which is fine, but it leaves the conclusion devoid of a tangible goal. It’s clear what the family needs, but it feels detached from what they need to do to survive. It lessens the impact of the finale, leaving things to end down from the high of what comes before.
Still, these are small enough issues in what’s otherwise a well-crafted tale of a family in distress forced to find strength in each other. This is easily the most emotional Into the Darkfilm yet as the void left by Val’s death is palpable between Nathan and his daughters. The little monsters are able to craft hallucinations in their efforts against the living, and it’s not long before Val is appearing to her family with differing results. Claire is terrified, Nathan is saddened, and young Maggie is dangerously delighted to see her mom’s return. The loss is real, and that kind of pain can leave some ready to give up and others ready to fight. Crawford is a big part of why the emotion lands as delivers a man forced to let go of his wife and fighting to hang on to his kids. He’s the core of this Father’s Day-centric installment, and it’s his journey that will decide the fate of his children. Crawford was always great on the Lethal Weapon series — and yes, you’re damn right I stopped watching after they killed off his Martin Riggs — and he carries that same blend of the playful and the distraught here.
Ultimately, though, it comes down to how well it works as a horror tale, and in that regard, it succeeds better than the rest of the series entries have. Early scenes tease almost a Strangers-lite atmosphere — or more appropriately for those in the know, Them-lite — and the little bastards have a genuinely creepy look to them with their black eyes, pursed lips, and clawed fingers. They’re even scarier in packs, and the film offers up a couple of scenes that descend into frantic chaos as the family fends off the little shits. A visit to another site showing remnants of the creatures’ last kill injects the atmosphere with some unsettling imagery and conclusions.
Saying that They Come Knocking is the best of the series so far isn’t exactly a high bar, but it remains a solidly entertaining entry delivering both horror and heart. The series still needs a bigger budget to help fill the feature-length running times with sharper cinematography, production design, and more, but for what it is this latest Into the Dark succeeds in bringing viewers back out into the light.