If they’ve heard of them at all, horror fans will probably know Broken Lizard from 2004’s slasher spoof CLUB DREAD, co-written and directed by Jay Chandrasekhar (who went on to helm the big budget feature version of THE DUKES OF HAZZARD the year later, and has worked extensively in television since). Broken Lizard, of which Chandrasekhar is a founding member, is an American comedy troupe formed more than twenty years ago, that managed to make the (mostly successful) leap from live comedy sketches to movies. Another alumnus, Paul Soter, wrote and directed last year’s DARK CIRCLES, a serious-minded haunted house chiller that belies the filmmaker’s satirical roots. Old-fashioned almost to the point of quaint, what it lacks in innovation it makes up for in spooky atmosphere.
Following the birth of their first child, Alex (Johnathon Schaech) and his wife Penny (Pell James) move out of the city to Penny’s dream house in the country. The house proves to be more dilapidated than they expected, and the combination of a new baby and nearby construction work leaves them feeling exhausted and divorced from reality. Their predicament is worsened by the advent of a series of hallucinations, in which the couple see a mysterious woman haunting their house...
Unusually for this kind of forbidding fare, the paranormal elements are almost redundant. Soter does such a good job of establishing the gruelling toll sleep deprivation and their hectic lifestyle take on the new parents that the narrative could probably function almost as well without the ghost. In a way, DARK CIRCLES feel like an amalgam of two films, both concerned with a couple’s devastating mental decline, one of them precipitated by natural means and the other supernatural. While it’s true that the sense of peril is exacerbated by this double threat, it also feels at times like the two strands are in competition, struggling with one another for dominance. It may be overkill, but there’s no denying the sense of authenticity Soter brings to the parents’ predicament, and the palpable sense of exhaustion he manages to generate. A steady bombardment of screaming babies, deafening construction work, arguments, hallucinations and domestic near-disasters paints a vivid picture of two people living on the razor’s-edge of exhaustion.
While Soter’s sense of mood is sublime, his story is less engaging. The plot is minimal, more concerned with nuances than developments. There’s nothing wrong with such a meticulous approach, but it tends to lend itself more readily to drama than horror, which usually demands a more proactive stance. It speaks to the director’s ability to spin a compelling yarn that DARK CIRCLES is never less than engaging, but I can’t help thinking it would have benefited from a little more narrative oomph. Nonetheless, Soter’s script is first class, emotively articulating the couple’s controlled and measured disintegration, and the two leads are excellent. There are a few rather obvious plot holes, and I’m not sure the final twist bears scrutiny, but in the main Soter proves himself a steady pair of hands. For all its virtues, however, DARK CIRCLES is ultimately let down by its lack of ambition. It’s a tale well told, but it’s not telling us anything new. Haunted houses are one of horror’s most familiar motifs, requiring a spectacularly original approach in order to stand out from the crowd. From its generic title to its tried-and-tested content to its disappointing denouement, DARK CIRCLES never comes close to spectacular. Solidly made, with a strong cast and a vibrant sense of atmosphere, it’s an above-average example of a conventional horror staple.