One of the most talked about films on this year’s festival circuit, Coming Home in the Dark marked the first feature from actor (Black Sheep, Stan Helsing) turned director, James Ashcroft. He and co-writer Eli Kent adapted Owen Marshall’s story of the same name, well known in their native New Zealand into what was reputed to be an hour and a half of pure terror. By the time it came my way at Fantasia I unwisely figured that even if it wasn’t overhyped, it had been over-reviewed. Not one of my better decisions as time, and finally seeing it has proven.
Alan Hoaganraad (Erik Thomson, The Furnace, We’re Here to Help), “Hoaggie” to his friends, his wife Jill (Miriama McDowell, Waitangi: What Really Happened), Maika (Billy Paratene) and Jordan (Frankie Paratene) Jill’s sons from a previous relationship are on a road trip. Their destination is a remote stretch of the New Zealand coast.
They’ve no sooner arrived than two menacing figures, Mandrake (Daniel Gillies, Occupation: Rainfall, The Vampire Diaries) and Tubs (Matthias Luafutu, Ghost in the Shell) his mostly silent Maori companion show up. At first, they seem more like a pair of random assholes than truly dangerous. Until Mandrake produces a rifle from under his trench coat.
Early in the film, Coming Home in the Dark delivers a kick to the balls that will shock just about anyone watching it. It’s an audacious move that risks alienating some viewers. It’s also a moment that the film struggles to match, making the rest of the film seem, despite the amount of tension that builds up, somewhat of an anticlimax.
Coming Home in the Dark makes it clear early on that this isn’t a random act of violence. Mandrake and Tubs know who Alan is and have a history with him. What connection there could be between a seemingly innocuous teacher and a family man like Alan and these psychopaths is the question. One that, at first, Alan himself doesn’t have an answer for. The answer lies in the past, in the dark history of New Zealand’s Borstal Schools. They were juvenile detention centers known for their harsh treatment of those sent there, especially of the native Maoris. Could Alan be guilty of some kind of horrific abuse?
The cast’s performances go a long way towards keeping Coming Home in the Dark’s mysteries safe until Ashcroft and Kent choose to reveal them. Thompson is convincing when he says he has no idea who his abductors are or what they’re talking about. Gillies is equally convincing when he claims otherwise. Luafutu says little with words, but his expressions and body language say plenty.
Is it a case of a trivial offence blown out of proportion by a pair of madmen? Or is Alan not who he appears to be? What could he have done, or not done, to bring their wrath on himself and his family? As the car hurtles through the night the answers will come out. First in small clues in the exchanges between the characters, then in more broad revelations. All of this is punctuated by bursts of physical and emotional violence as the car’s occupants find themselves coming home in the dark one last time.
Unrelenting and grim, from an early moment that echoes The Hitcher until its final scene, this is a tense thriller with its roots in real-world horrors. It’s not a film for the easily upset or for those looking for some light entertainment. Even if it does lose some steam in the final act, Coming Home in the Dark is a hard brutal ride, that should be approached with respect.