And Soon the Darkness
If the old film school thesis holds true, and films are a mirror reflecting the subconscious fears and anxieties of their age, then Americans have had a long standing fear of unfamiliar surroundings. If the movies are to be believed, then Americans fear that any place more than ten miles from their front doors are death traps. Americans should stay in the States and even more, city dwellers should stay in the city. The prevalence of “vacation gone wrong” films like Deliverance, or the Hostel films, in American cinema suggests that there just might be something to the this idea after all. Whether it’s a stolen kidney in Tijuana or a white slave trade ring in Eastern Europe, modern American folklore is rife with stories of innocent Americans being preyed upon as soon as they step off their porches. Perhaps the films are an expression of post-Colonial white guilt; after having held the world hostage at the end of a gun, white Europeans and their descendants are the natural target of cultures that suffered under the yoke of Colonialism, and watching tourists suffering in these films is a form of penance-by-proxy. Whatever the underlying cause, the premise tends to make for good cinema: it has a built in underdog component, so the film has less work to try and win our sympathies, and there’s usually a time pressure element so stories built around this device tend to be exciting and suspenseful. Throw in some exotic scenery and it seems the film would make itself, and be pretty good to boot. Of course, what seems like a sure fire winner on paper doesn’t always wind up so in practice. Instead of being about a film with a vacation gone wrong at its heart, And Soon the Darkness is a film gone wrong with no heart whatsoever.
The sun is setting on Stephanie (Amber Heard) and Ellie’s (Odetta Yustman) Argentinian bike tour vacation. They’ve long since broken from the main group to explore places off the beaten path. While celebrating their last night in South America at a small town cantina Ellie meets Chucho (Michel Noher), a handsome local who trains his smouldering eyes on Ellie as she dances seductively to “I Touch Myself.” Also at the bar is Michael (Karl Urban), a stoic American with an agenda. In the cantina’s only, presumably unisex, bathroom he cryptically warns her to stay close to Stephanie, good advice she promptly ignores. The result: a drunken Ellie is nearly raped by Chucho right in front of her hotel room. Only when Stephanie, Michael and the hotel manager intercede does Chucho back off.
The next morning Ellie’s dreadful hangover, and her resultant lethargy, is responsible for the girls missing their bus the airport. Stephanie re-books their flight home but is clearly annoyed at the extra inconvenience and expensive of having to do so. Their return home postponed an extra day, the friends decide to do some low key, relaxing activities. When an argument between the two is stirred up and the wrong things are said, Stephanie leaves Ellie alone in the wilderness. When Ellie doesn’t return to town, even after a reconciliatory text message promises she will, Stephanie gets worried. Returning to the wilderness, and bumping into Michael while there, she finds signs of a struggle. She reports Ellie’s disappearance but the local sheriff is dismissive and unhelpful and Michael’s motives are uncertain. The one thing she does know is that if she doesn’t find her friend before nightfall, she will probably never see her again.
It’s not hard to see why the suspense genre is favoured by low budget filmmakers; you don’t need huge budgets or limitless resources to make an effective suspense thriller. What you do need – and what And Soon the Darkness is missing – is tight control of pacing. Nearly forty minutes of the ninety one minute movie elapses before anything even happens. We’re introduced to the characters but they’re sketchily drawn and we don’t learn enough about them, even while every plot point occurs a good fifteen to twenty minutes later than it really should. The whole movie is too low energy and sluggish to generate any suspense or excitement. Some scenes feel like the crew accidentally shot the rehearsals instead and didn’t have enough stock to re-shoot the actual takes.
Odette Yustman is as attractive a woman as you could hope for, David S. Goyer’s fascination with her ass was the only thing that made watching The Unborn bearable, but she has yet to win me over as an actress. Great effort seems to be made by both her and the writers to make Ellie as obnoxious as possible. She’s a virtual caricature of the loudmouth American tourist but, while annoying, she never crosses the line into being truly repellent. She’s like a gnat; as soon as she stops buzzing, you forget she was ever there.
Yustman’s character may be annoying, but at least her performance has life and energy to it. Compare that to the usually solid Karl Urban, who seems to be sleepwalking through his role for the paycheque and a trip to Argentina. His characterization of Michael literally consists of him glaring, glowering and alternating between putting on and taking off his sunglasses. Amber Heard does what she can with very thin material. She’s credited as a producer as well, so she’s the only person in front of the camera with a vested interest in the film beyond the payday.
The movie looks slick but its low budget is still apparent in other areas. Like most low budget movies, it’s subject to the law of economy of characters: any character that has more than two scenes will tie directly into the main plot. Given that, the film’s surprises aren’t nearly as surprising as the filmmakers would like them to seem: is the lackadaisical Sheriff in on the abduction plot? Will the sheepish, emotional fragile girl rise to the occasion and win the day? Is water wet?
After Ellie goes missing, the film is practically over and the last act is in such a hurry to be done with itself that Stephanie finds her almost immediately. This is the section of the film that should have been drawn out, not the first act. The director tries to squeeze suspense from the first act instead of the last; given this exhausted material, he may as well try squeezing water from stone.
And Soon the Darkness boasts one of the most fantastic locations I’ve ever seen: a flooded town that was abandoned and left to decay. It’s stark, eerie and unsettling and the filmmakers do absolutely nothing with it. The location lends itself, practically calls out for, a cat-and-mouse chase sequence but every shot in the town seems to occur in the same ten square meters and even those few locations are shot in the most flat, unimaginative way possible. Is it too much to ask that a cameraman climb a tree or even just stand on a box to get some shots with a sense of scope to them? What a waste. I hope somebody watches this movie and is inspired to return to the town a really take advantage of it. At least then then filmmakers could boast that some good came from watching their film.
The video presentation of And Soon the Darkness is stronger than the film deserves, but still a bit of a mixed bag. The AVC transfer runs at a consistently high bit rate, rarely dropping below 30 Mbps, and it’s free of any noticeable compression related defects. The way over saturated colour timing, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Detail in shadowy areas is completely missing: in one shot Yustman is standing front of a dark background and it looks like her head is free floating in midair; the delination between the outline of her hair and the darkness of the background is completely missing. Lighter scenes are little blown out, intentionally so I think. The attention paid to making the visuals of And Soon the Darkness contemporary is admirable, but it goes a little too far.
Conversely, the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track feels a little undercooked. Dialogue is always clear and well-presented and tomandandy’s score nicely fills out the surrounds, but for a film with so many scenes set in the wilderness, there’s a decidedly lack of enveloping atmospheric surround effects. Bass could have been punchier in the “stinger” moments. I hate when movies rely on jump scares, but I’d rather that to watching a movie with as tepid a sound mix as the one And Soon the Darkness has.
Director Marcos Efron, Editor Todd Miller and Cinematographer Gabriel Beristain provide a feature commentary that does a good job of balancing technical information, production anecdotes and story insight. Budding directors and cinematographers should enjoy Efron and Beristains technical discussion of the photography (including choices of film stock), while others may find it dry or downright impenetrable. I’ll admit I got lost a few times in the terminology and Beristain’s fairly heavy accent. Efron is easy to listen to, so I didn’t really mind that his discussion of story elements lacked a certain perspective on the effectiveness of the finished film. Miller is a practical non-entity throughout the commentary. All in all, a pretty strong commentary for a mediocre film.
The usual collection of Deleted Scenes (6:42) is included, probably for the sole purpose of adding a bullet point to the back of the package. Sure, there’s a bit more of the leads in their bikinis but mostly it’s dry stuff from the first act that doesn’t add any character insight and would serve to make a slow film even slower. Strangely, a lot of the scenes mentioned in the commentary don’t show up here, making the feature seem doubly pointless.
Marco’s Efron narrates a short Director’s Video Diary (11:12) that consists of a mix of scenes from the film and behind-the-scenes footage. There’s a really nice scene of Amber Heard visiting a local school and passing out school supplies and toys to the students. I’ve always thought Heard was a good actress, but it looks like she’s also a good human being, as well. There’s also some amusing footage of a camera op riding a Segway while shooting with a Stedi-cam. Nothing ground-breaking, but good for a watch.
Finally, there’s a trailer (1:51) that makes the film seem a lot more exciting than it actually is, which suggests that there’s a good movie lurking in there somewhere. Maybe they should give the person who cut the trailer a crack at re-editing the movie.
And Soon the Darkness is as thin and slight a movie as I’ve ever seen. It practically begs you to forget about it as soon as you’re done watching. It’s nothing you haven’t seen countless times before and done better. If you’re in the mood for a good American tourist in peril thriller your time would be better spent re-watching the Hostel films…or Taken…or Frantic…or just about any other American tourist in peril thriller you can think of. And Soon the Darkness is journeyman filmmaking at its fi- well, no “finest” isn’t exactly appropriate here. Okay, let’s try this again: And Soon the Darkness is journeyman filmmaking at its most journeyman-like.
Just watch the original 1970 And Soon the Darkness, instead. This one is lame.
Nice review. A very unworthy remake. Makes the original look award winning.
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