August 21, 2023

Peering into The Dark

Poster - The Dark (1993)
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The Dark (1993)

Pros: Great, engaging cast; Impressive production values for a low-budget movie, especially its night time cinematography, sound design and original music
Cons: A few plot holes raise questions; Some will find the creature design lame, others will appreciate the effort - your mileage may vary

Here I go again. Having just finished a challenge from a fellow blogger to write about five favorite underrated sci-fi TV movies from the ‘70s, I’ve gallantly accepted a new assignment, this time from Rebecca at Taking up Room. Rebecca recently selected me for her Pick the Movie Tag (see more info here), and as a result, my homework is to write about an independent movie from the ‘90s.

Rebecca’s pick gave me the excuse I needed to hunt down an obscure Canadian sci-fi/horror flick from the early ‘90s that I had heard about but never seen. But before I dive in, there’s some disambiguating that needs to be done (just like Wikipedia!).

To be clear, The Dark that I am writing about is not:

  • The Dark (1979), a sci-fi-horror-thriller with William Devane and Cathy Lee Crosby about an alien serial killer.
  • The Dark (2005), a fantasy-drama about parents (Sean Bean and Maria Bello) who encounter the doppelganger of their daughter who has mysteriously disappeared.
  • The Dark (2018), a horror-fantasy about an unlikely friendship between an undead girl and a blind boy in a haunted forest.

I’ve never seen any of those other The Darks, so I can’t speak to their qualities (or lack thereof; if any of them seem intriguing, go for it -- but let me make a case for the ‘90s film before you do).

Stock image, free for commercial use, courtesy of
It's not like there's anything in the dark that can hurt us, right?

Nope, the movie that I’m posting about is even more obscure than those, so obscure in fact, that it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page (and I may just need to remedy that … but first things first).

Having just watched The Dark from 1993, its obscurity relative to its Dark brethren is a mystery to me. It features two well-known (at the time) character actors in the form of Stephen McHattie and Brion James, Neve Campbell in her feature film debut (Neve Campbell! Feature film debut!), and a cast of talented supporting actors who seem to be having genuine fun with the material. It’s been released on VHS and DVD, and seems to have even gotten a home video release in Germany.

So why the lack of attention? One explanation is that The Dark is, in spirit and in its low-budget practical effects, a throw-back to ‘50s and ‘60s creature features. Unfortunately, it was made the same year that Jurassic Park blew everyone away with its awesome big budget CGI effects. It's easy to see how this little film, its tongue firmly in cheek, might get lost in the tumult of Hollywood’s digital revolution.

Now that we’re all fed up with bloated, CGI-ridden blockbusters that cost hundreds of millions, endlessly rehash stale material, and test audiences’ patience and bladders with run times that seem to go on forever, humble little films that entertain with good stories and clever practical effects are making a comeback. (Do you mind if I speak for all of us? Thank you, thank you very much!) So maybe, thirty years later, The Dark’s time has come.

Stephen McHattie plays Gary “Hunter” Henderson, a scientist who has recently lost his wife, but has found new purpose in investigating a secret that can possibly change the course of medical science. In a dark and stormy title sequence, Gary is in a nondescript cemetery, sprawled against a tree across from his wife’s gravestone, gloomily trying to drink his grief away.

Screenshot - Title sequence in cemetery, The Dark (1993)
In an alcoholic daze, Gary wonders why the picture on the TV is so dark.

He suddenly hears screams and gunshots, and unluckily manages to get himself shot by hot-headed FBI agent Buckner (Brion James), who is pursuing some “thing” that just killed his partner.

In an interrogation room, Gary, who has miraculously recovered from his wounds (make a note of that, it will be important later), is being grilled by the extremely belligerent agent. Buckner, who seems to know all about Henderson, tells the scientist that he’s lucky to be alive, then beats the crap out of him as an additional warning (but a warning about what exactly?).

Two years later, Gary is back in town, trying to peacefully drink a cup of coffee in a downtown diner. This time, he runs afoul of a trio of punk bikers who are harassing the very attractive waitress Tracy (Cynthia Belliveau). Gary intervenes, and before you can say “greasy spoon,” the diner owner is shot, Gary is stabbed, Tracy shoots one of the bikers with the owner’s shotgun, and as Gary and Tracy ride off on a motorcycle, the girl blasts the bikers’ hogs, resulting in an impressive fireball.

After their less than auspicious meeting, Gary and Tracy hole up at a cheap motel. Tracy insists that Gary go to the hospital for the knife wound, but he has a “home” remedy, some sort of smelly goop, that he applies to the wound. The goop does the trick, because soon enough, Gary is feeling well enough to make love to his new girlfriend. (Editor’s note: the goop in this movie should not be confused with Gywneth Paltrow’s wellness and lifestyle brand.)

Screenshot - Cynthia Belliveau in The Dark (1993)
You never know who's going to be armed and dangerous in a small rural town.

Meanwhile, the town's cemetery caretaker Jake (Dennis O’Connor) and his young, nervous assistant Ed (Jaimz Woolvett) are getting ready to dig a new grave. When Jake fires up the backhoe, the engine promptly catches fire. Ed hits the deck as Jake calmly walks around to the engine and puts the fire out. Then they reluctantly break out the shovels to dig the old-fashioned way.

As they’re working, Ed thinks he sees a gravestone moving out of the corner of his eye. Just as he’s convinced himself he’s seeing things, the stone suddenly drops out of sight. To their amazement, the gravediggers find that a huge tunnel has been dug under the cemetery.

Soon, the cemetery becomes the place to be as sheriff’s deputies (including Campbell as a rookie deputy), Gary and Tracy, and eventually, Buckner show up to figure out what is tunneling underneath all the town’s dead citizens.

Of course, all good horror movie characters wander off into the woods, venture into basements and generally do their monster hunting in the dead of night, and The Dark’s are no exception (it is called The Dark after all). Throw in clueless cops, and you’ve got a double whammy of monster movie gold.

One suspense scene, played with a knowing wink, is a veritable catalog of what not to do if you’re a horror movie character. The first deputies to respond, Gabe and Jesse (Christopher Bondy and Neve Campbell) arrive in the middle of the night (of course!). Gabe, all macho bravado, is going to show the rube gravediggers how to investigate dark, mysterious tunnels.

As he prepares to explore the tunnels armed only with a flashlight with questionable batteries and a rope tied around his waist, Ed speaks for everyone (including the audience) when he sheepishly asks “Don’t you want to check it out in the morning?” Then, as Gabe disappears into the darkness, he mutters “dead meat” to himself.

Screenshot - Discover of the tunnel complex underneath the cemetery in The Dark (1993)
"What part of 'don't go down there' do you not understand?"

It’s as if the scene was a dress rehearsal for Campbell’s later Scream franchise and its celebration of horror movie tropes; in this case, Ed and Jesse are the makeshift guides to who will survive and who will not.

Like its innumerable horror brethren, it’s not hard to guess who’s going to see daylight at the end of The Dark, but it’s getting there that can either be fun or tedious. Much of the fun comes from the banter between caretaker Jake and protege Ed, who remind me of Frank and Eddy, the two chuckleheaded medical supply company employees in The Return of the Living Dead (1985).

Old hand Jake, calm and collected at first, gets progressively unnerved as the film goes on, while Ed tries to tap reserves of courage (especially in front of Jesse, whom he idolized in high school).

On their way out to the new grave site, Jake teases Ed that “the first time you break ground on a new grave, you wake the dead.” Then, when they discover the tunnel, Ed rejoins, “Maybe you buried someone before they were dead and he had to dig himself out!”

Once they realize the extent of the tunnels, the two start arguing about whether they were made by underground man-eating space aliens or giant radioactive mutant gophers.

Screenshot - Dennis O'Connor and Jaimz Woolvett in The Dark (1993)
On a slow day at the cemetery, Jake and Ed debate the relative merits of
man-eating, underground-dwelling space aliens vs. giant mutant gophers.

Later, when the sheriff’s deputies have joined the festivities and the group is tentatively peering into the darkened tunnel entrance, Ed asks Jesse, “Dead people don’t spook you?”, to which she sagely responds “Not as much as some living people do.”

The Dark’s spookiest character outside of the creature is Buckner, the FBI agent. The set-up of the FBI going monster-hunting in a small town cemetery is very reminiscent of the long-running hit TV series The X-Files (coincidentally, both debuted in 1993). However, Buckner is the anti-Agent Mulder: his curiosity about the unknown extends only to the point of figuring out how to kill the creatures he encounters (okay, so he does have an excuse, seeing as how the thing ripped his partner to shreds and all).

With a hard, chiseled face made for cinematic villainy, James already had almost two decades of movies and TV under his belt by the time The Dark rolled around. Sci-fi fans will recognize James as Leon, the android-replicant that almost passes the human test in the original Blade Runner (1982). In 1997 he appeared in a plum supporting role as General Munro in another cult sci-fi favorite, The Fifth Element.

Screenshot - Brion James in The Dark (1993)
For Agent Buckner, the truth is out there to be blasted to smithereens.

Buckner’s opponent, Gary Henderson (McHattie), is a scientist who wants to study the creature instead of killing it. While The Dark harkens back in some ways to creature features from the ‘50s, this time around its scientist is a real macho hero rather than some effete, ivory-tower type who is naive about the alien menace and has to be shoved aside (or conveniently killed) so the military can take charge. Plus, Henderson has a very good reason for wanting to capture the thing alive - it secretes a substance that has miraculous healing properties.

Like James, Stephen McHattie already had a couple of decades worth of screen credits by the early '90s. He has since amassed many, many more. Among his many horror and sci-fi credits, a true standout is his performance in Pontypool (2008), one of the great low-budget horror films of the aughts -- see my review here.

I knew nothing about Cynthia Belliveau before seeing The Dark. Like many of the other cast members, she is Canadian. As Tracy, the shotgun-wielding waitress, she is an attractive girl-next-door type who has surprising fortitude when the chips are down. For my money, her feisty portrayal in The Dark should have led to more high profile work, but perusing her IMDb resume, The Dark appears to be a career high point instead of a stepping stone.

Screenshot - Cynthia Belliveau and Stephen McHattie in The Dark (1993)
Tracy and Gary suddenly realized that they forgot to call before they started digging.

This indie film was just the second feature for producer-director Craig Pryce, which he shot in Ontario, Canada with the help of the Ontario Film Development Corporation. It’s not a perfect sophomore effort -- there are some head-scratching plot holes, like how the cemetery caretaker could be oblivious to all the monster-hunting going on and suddenly be surprised by tunnels honeycombing the area; surely he would have noticed something in the two years that had elapsed since the first incident? And exactly how and when did Gary discover that the creature could be turned into a pharmaceutical windfall?

And let’s just say that the creature design is not universally loved by IMDb commenters.

For me, The Dark compensates with an engaged and engaging cast that seems to be having fun recreating the ambience of '50s sci-fi. And Pryce knows well enough to keep the creature mostly in the shadows. Speaking of shadows, Michael Storey’s cinematography more than lives up to the challenge of shooting mostly at night and in dim tunnels on a limited budget. Also, the original music and sound design give The Dark an additional polish that many low-budget genre films lack.

While this particular Dark might not give you goosebumps, the cast members do everything they can to make it a fun romp in the cemetery.

Where to find it: Streaming

Screenshot - Stephen McHattie at the climax of The Dark (1993)
What is Gary looking at? Click on the image if you dare!

And now, to keep the Pick My Movie tag going, I nominate John from tales from the freakboy zone.

John’s assignment, should he choose to accept it, is to review a little-known movie that he thinks should have cult status, or a movie that should have more recognition than it currently has. The rules for the tag are here. Good luck!