GORE IN THE STORE
COMING HOME IN THE DARK ****
Directed by James Ashcroft.
Starring Daniel Gillies, Erik Thomson, Miriama McDowell, Matthias Luafutu.
Horror, New Zealand, 93 minutes.
Reviewed as part of Arrow Video FrightFest 2021.
Despite the beautiful New Zealand scenery, all towering mountains connecting the green landscape to the vast sky above, an atmosphere of dread seems to pour off the screen in James Ashcroft’s adaptation of Owen Marshall’s 1995 short story. Even if you come to the film with no knowledge of the films simple premise the feeling that something bad is going to happen is unshakable only moments after the film’s opening frames.
Driving through the unmistakable landscape we find the family unit of father Hoagie, his wife Jill and their teenage sons Maika and Jordan. Hiking through the hills there is an ominous sighting of two figures atop a hill. These two figures soon introduce themselves threateningly when the family have stopped to rest. Introducing themselves, whilst casually wielding a rifle, Mandrake and his near silent, always glowering partner Tubs soon make their intentions known. “I think that right there's going to be the moment you wish you'd done something." Mandrake nonchalantly informs Hoagie before committing a devastating act of violence and further imposing his will on the family. What ensues is a hellish road trip, Mandrake holding them hostage and discovering that Hoagie’s past has intersected with his own.
The coincidental nature of this shared history could come across as contrived or lazy in another film, but Ashcroft has managed somehow to avoid it becoming an unbelievable crux that the audience cannot get over. It could be that the feeling of stunned disbelief and submission, like Hoagie and his family experience, has managed to exert a freezing hold on the viewer daring them to keep on watching to see if there is any escape possible. This cold, unsparing film recalls Michael Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES and its US remake, but without the smug meta commentary on screen violence. Instead, Ashcroft seems more interested in using this thriller framework to explore the effects of cyclical violence and abuse and its lingering effects as well as the powerlessness it brings on further fuelling its recurrent nature.
This is a very grim film. From its inciting act of shocking violence to its haunting and quiet final shot there is no reprieve for the viewer. No instances of humour to lighten the tension or let the audience relax are presented here. It may sound like an exercise in misery, but it's characters experience or have experienced in the past. The spectre of the state homes scandal from the country’s past hangs heavily over the film, an angle that Ashcroft and co-screenwriter Eli Kent have added that was not present in Owen Marshall’s original story. This aspect will no doubt hit closer to home in its native ¬country, but it also forces viewers elsewhere into considering such actions and their ramifications.
While it can hardly be considered as a work of crowd-pleasing entertainment with the way it confronts and rattles the viewer, it succeeds as a work that stays with its audience long after a single viewing. As a feature directorial debut for Ashcroft, it proves that he has a skillset in gripping the viewer with a way that goes above and beyond the usual genre tropes and theatrics. It will be interesting and exciting to see how he can devastate his audience in the future.