Movie review: “Dark Skies”

There are haunted house movies, there are alien movies, and then there’s “Dark Skies,” which fuses both into a chilling and effective feature about a family that gets put through the ringer by unseen forces.

With fine-tuned performances by Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton, “Dark Skies” plays with the atmosphere of “Poltergeist” with a splash of “Signs” mixed in. It also has a pretty bonkers climax with a bold and well-earned twist ending. This is another late-winter release that gives you your money’s worth.

Writer-director Scott Stewart is only on his third feature film after the underwhelming “Legion” and “Priest.” Perhaps with “Dark Skies” he is coming into his own. This is a well-directed film, with a structure that starts out calmly before unleashing a relentless series of haunting images. Stewart wisely avoids jump scares, and his script gives the characters honest reactions to the things happening around them without turning them into idiots. Much of that comes from the convincing performances by Russell and Hamilton — it’s really easy to believe in their strained marriage.

Russell plays Lacy Barrett, a real estate agent struggling to sell an outdated home. Her husband Daniel (Hamilton) is an out-of-work architect and they are three months behind on the mortgage. As if their economic struggles weren’t enough, they begin noticing some strange things around the house, like the kitchen pantry contents stacked up to the ceiling in the middle of the night. At first, Lacy suspects maybe her son Sam (Kadan Rockett) has some sleep-walking issues, but when all the family photos go missing, she suspects something more sinister is happening. Their oldest son, Jesse (Dakota Goyo), is at that awkward transition between puberty and manhood, which is difficult enough to manage without problems at home. He has a tender way of calming his younger brother at night, by communicating with him via walkie-talkie from his room.

Before long, the weird stuff gets out of control. For instance, nobody seems to be able to explain why three different bird migrations slammed into their house at once, resulting in hundreds of dead starlings on their lawn. And what of the mysterious marks and bruises that begin to appear on the boys? Or Daniel’s bizarre rash behind his ear? To reveal much more would be to spoil to fun, which by this point might suggest a ghost is to blame. Not quite. Although, Daniel does eventually discover something shocking on security camera footage after Lacy claims she saw…someone in the house. This causes them to contact Edwin Pollard (J.K. Simmons), who is an “expert on these things.”

There is some nice special-effects work worth a mention, and Stewart relies on stark imagery rather than overdoing it on CGI, although much of the climax benefits from some expert use of it. There are a couple transition shots that stand out as well, which trigger some changes in the narrative before things get truly nuts. The ending might be disappointing for some, but it reveals such a gut-punching twist that it works very well.

“Dark Skies” — rated PG-13, 97 minutes — three stars out of four.