Here’s a film that sends out mixed signals … the poster describes it as ‘a sci-fi cop movie’ but the opening sequence, in which a hapless fellow sets foot on an isolated farm, gives out a rural horror vibe since the place has gone overboard on the Texas Chain Saw school of set-decoration, featuring dangling clinking hooks and booby-traps. Then, sleek FBI agent Daria Francis (Amanda Schull) gets off a plane to be partnered with local deputy Colt Salter (Shawn Ashmore) and patronised by the sheriff (Jonathan Frakes) in a manner that’s an exact parallel with the thriller Wind River and sticks to ground rules laid down as long ago as The Silence of the Lambs.
The young woman has something to prove, since her zeal to solve an earlier case had a bad outcome, but the local authorities seem disinclined to investigate the disappearance of the wife and son of local farmer Jackson Pritchard (Milo Ventimiglia), whose homestead is on unfertile ground family tradition insists was deeded to the Pritchards by God. The Sheriff doesn’t even want to have Jackson further interviewed about his wife Maria (Bridget Regan), and it’s not until Daria turns up a sketchbook left behind by his young son Jonah (Spencer Drever) – full of monster daddy drawings even a hick rube would recognise as a sign of an unhealthy home life – that Colt concedes they need to drive out to the Pritchard place, which is troubled by lightning strikes, power-outages, roiling sinister skies and other ominous phenomena … and Jackson is seen to be keeping something or someone in the fighting-dog cages in the basement.
The list of possible explanations runs to ghosts, demons, aliens, angels, mutants and psychos … and the creature which does show up (played inevitably by gangling Javier Botet, who makes Doug Jones look like John Candy) is an intriguingly unclassifiable presence (apparently, a monster wearing another monster) with something of the heft of an Outer Limits ‘bear’ and a genuinely startling look. A plate under a field which attracts lightning has mystic symbols on it, and there’s a backstory with several generations going for it – plus interesting parallels, raised late in the film, with the displacement of the Indians from this patch of God’s country (Daria’s line about a grandfather who was proud of being ‘one-sixteenth Cherokee’ is a killer which will be quoted).
This isn’t really about its ideas though. Mostly, it’s a siege-in-an-isolated-homestead movie with squabbling characters – each of whom reads the situation differently, with the devout farmer clashing with the rational fed, but has to change their interpretation over the course of the night – defending themselves against attacks from outside, down below and within. It has a solid cast of mostly TV names (deliberately recruiting regulars from s-f series) and gives an intense Ventimiglia the most to do as he seesaws from villain to hero, with even stranger reveals in the finale. Written by Peter Aperlo and director Clay Staub, both stepping up after working in various associational capacities on Zack Snyder projects – Aperlo wrote the tie-in computer games for 300, Watchmen and Legends of the Guardian, Staub was the 2nd unit director on Dawn of the Dead and 300.