Longtime horror fans know that when you hear a strange noise all alone in the middle of nowhere, you don’t investigate—you get the hell out of Dodge...
...But what happens when the menace that’s stalking you is vicious as a wolf but quiet as a church mouse? That’s the precarious situation facing the heroes of writer/director Robert Dean’s The Dead of Night, a film that uses silence to explore themes of independence, loneliness, and isolation in rural Midwest America and what happens when a pair of nomadic psychopaths exploit the “mind-your-own” mentality of a small ranching community, turning the sparsely populated town into their hunting ground.
On the night of the local bull riding championship, a pair of young sweethearts (Charlotte McKee & Darius Homayoun) are attacked in their camper by two masked drifters, one dressed as a coyote (Jack Lutz), the other a fox (Jesse Kinser). The killers are swift, savage, and silent, fully embodying the animals whose skins they wear and taking down their prey in a way that seems practiced and methodical. We can tell these men have done this before. It’s not long before the bodies of the couple are discovered near the property of siblings Tommy (Jake Etheridge) and June (Colby Crain), and Tommy falls under the suspicious eye of deputy Luke Walker (Matthew Lawrence), who just so happens to be June’s ex-boyfriend. Tommy and Luke may be at odds over the investigation, but they’re both in agreement that they don’t want to say goodbye to June, who is leaving their one-horse town on the morrow for a bigger, brighter future in parts unknown. When Tommy stumbles upon the killers committing another murder, he’s pursued back home where he, his sister, and their friends (Leah Bezozo & Kyle Overstreet) must find a way to fight back against these animalistic butchers if they want to survive the night.
What follows is a mix between home invasion and survival horror, a blend that plays well amongst the sparse, open landscape of the film. Wide shots and slow pans let us know that this is country-country, where the sky is big, the people are tough, and your nearest neighbor is miles and miles away, and wants to keep it that way. Cattle and crops are commodities here, but also solitude, something much valued by folks in these parts. We see this demonstrated when the rodeo couple go missing and their disappearance is met with polite “well, they probably just want some alone time, no harm in that” response. This is, after all, a quiet town, which the film drives home through its dialogue and setpieces. There are no raised voices in the film, no whooping or hollering. Everyone speaks in even, almost hushed, voices and even the local diner and the bull riding stadium have noticeably subdued, still atmospheres.
The dark inverse of this seemingly peaceful tranquility is that it makes for the perfect cover under which the killers can operate. The isolation of the town and the distance between points of civilization allow them to track, kill, and retreat without raising an alarm. They make no noise save for the yips and howls they use to communicate with each other, punctuating the film’s barebones score in an incredibly effective and unsettling manner. The film never reveals the killers’ actual, human faces or lets us hear them speak, which only heightens their terrorizing presence. Like the trio of masked murderers in The Strangers, there’s no motive or explanation given here for the actions of the Coyote and the Fox. They’re killing simply because they can, and they like it.
The film opens quick and dirty with a prologue that introduces the killers and then segues into the establishing murder of the rodeo couple before slowing down for the next forty-five minutes or so. With the audience now hooked, we spend time getting to know Tommy and June and piecing together the complexities of their relationship, as well as June’s history with Luke. Both men want her to stay in town for their own reasons to the point where Luke uses his authority as deputy to force June to talk to him about rekindling their relationship, something June is emphatically not interested in doing. Tommy, whose desire to keep his sister at home are somewhat more noble but still selfish, lashes out at June in an emotionally charged, raw scene on the porch that anyone with a sibling close in age will recognize themselves in in one way or another.
There’s a theme and a message here about toxic masculinity, women’s agency, and hero complexes that I would have liked to have seen teased out more, but some disappointing instances do provide the setup for the film’s boldest choice, a cruel and unexpected final moment twist that brings the toxic masculinity thread full circle.
The film makes good use of its modest budget. There’s little to no gore yet the audience always has a clear sense of the violence being committed, which heightens its realism. All of the performances are grounded and subtle, including horror legend Lance Henriksen in a small role as the diner owner, which lend believability and bring life to the world of the film. Dean also knows how to be precise and tactical in the use of both sound and silence to induce dread and anticipation in the viewer, all while showcasing that murder can be mundane and random, as par for the course as a wolf taking down its dinner, and that is what makes killing truly terrifying. Certain themes and story beats could have used more attention, but the film works overall. A meditative watch perfect for a dark night in the country, the moon full and the wolves at your door.
The Dead of Night comes to VOD/Digital from Shout! Studios and VMI Worldwide on March 9th.
By Craig Ranallo
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