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FrightFest 2019 Review - DARK ENCOUNTER

dark encounter review
A year after the mysterious disappearance of an eight-year-old girl, a small town receives a visit from aliens.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Carl Strathie

Starring: Laura Fraser, Mel Raido, Sid Phoenix, Grant Master, Spike White, Alice Lowe, Nicholas Pinnock, Vincent Regan

dark encounter poster


When filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan burst onto the scene at the turn of the century, his movies were labelled 'Spielbergian'. This was a high compliment, a result of Shyamalan injecting his sci-fi and horror movies with a level of humanity largely absent from the work of his peers in such genres. It wasn't long before other movies began to be labelled as 'Shyamalan-esque', but this was rarely considered a compliment. Rather, when a movie is designated as Shyamalanesque it more often than not means that it's a genre film that relies too heavily on a twist, and which aims for a level of profundity it's ill-equipped to reach.


dark encounter review

Writer/director Carl Strathie's sophomore feature Dark Encounter will no doubt be labelled both Spielbergian and Shyamalan-esque. At its best it's a loving and technically adept homage to the sci-fi work of Spielberg, with the influence of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and War of the Worlds writ large in its tale of an alien encounter in middle America. At its worst, it expends too much self-congratulatory energy hammering home its twist in a third act that derails the tense sci-fi thriller we had been so invested in up to that point.

[ Read more: FrightFest 2019 Review - The Furies ]

Dark Encounter is a low budget British film, but you wouldn't know it, so convincing is its depiction of its 1980s rural Pennsylvanian setting, with a cast of Brits flawlessly pulling off American accents. Two of those Brits are Scottish actress Laura Fraser and English actor Mel Raido. They play married couple Olivia and Ray, who return home one day to find someone has been in their house while they've been away, and that their eight-year-old daughter Maisie has mysteriously disappeared.


dark encounter review

A year later, Olivia and Ray return home with family and friends following a memorial service in Maisie's honour. Tensions run high, particularly between Ray and his disobediant son Noah (Spike White), and it's clear the family is still a long way from recovering from their collective trauma. Desperate to get out of the stifling atmosphere of the house, Ray uses the excuse of lights in the woods adjoining his home, which he assumes to come from kids messing with flares, to leave and investigate. But the gathered menfolk all volunteer to tag along and cramp his desire for solitude. While in the woods, the men discover the strange lights aren't simply coming from trouble-making teenagers, but from something far more sinister.

[ Read more: FrightFest 2019 Review - A Serial Killer's Guide to Life ]

It's at this point that Strathie prises open the Spielberg toolbox, filling the middle portion of his film with an extended set-piece in which Olivia, Ray et al attempt to prevent the mysterious alien intruders from gaining entry to their home. It's a masterclass in low budget genre filmmaking, as aside from a couple of shots, Strathie relies not on CG effects but on simple, old school use of light and shadow. For the most part, the aliens are represented by the bright beaming lights that shine through the homestead's windows, and by half-glimpsed shadows seen skulking outside. To a man and woman, the ensemble cast does a fine job of conveying the collective panic and terror.


dark encounter review

It's in the film's final half hour, following a key revelation detailed through a sequence that resembles the climax of Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, that Strathie's movie morphs from an economical and efficient b-movie thriller to an eye-rollingly affected piece of sub-Shyamalan pseudo-profundity. The twist and its repercussions could have been dealt with in 10 minutes - suggesting that Dark Encounter would probably work better as an episode of an Outer Limits type TV anthology - but Strathie employs tedious slo-mo to stretch out the revelation in a conceited fashion. You get the impression Dark Encounter is so pleased with its twist that it's determined to milk it for all its worth, but it's the sort of overlong climax that will see the average cinema-goer pull their jacket on 20 minutes before the credits get around to rolling. For a movie that keeps you gripped for so long, it's a shame that it will likely end with you glancing impatiently at your watch.

Dark Encounter is on DVD/Digital HD October 21st.


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