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"Dark Skies"

Terror in the suburbs


Like the movies themselves, the haunted house, a favorite real estate of generations of horror, has come a long way from the gloomy castle or the dark Victorian pile; directors now relocate that spooky domicile to the more recognizable suburbs that proliferate and spread their interchangeable blandness across our great nation. The menace that once stalked the endless corridors of innumerable scary mansions now lives in that nice three-bedroom, two-and-a half bath ranch house next door. "The Amityville Horror" may have initiated that historic move, but the three versions of "Poltergeist" probably transformed it into a fixed element of the genre.

In its particular examination of contemporary suburban life, the new movie, "Dark Skies," blends horror and science fiction while commenting on some aspects of the way we now live. Lacy and Daniel Barrett (Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton) live in a typical house on a typical street, where everything looks distressingly like everything else. The couple, along with their young sons Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and Sam (Kadan Rockett) face some familiar difficulties — Daniel has been laid off from his unspecified job, which appears to involve architecture, and Lacy works at the daunting task of selling real estate in a down market; 13-year-old Jesse, meanwhile, is hanging around with the wrong kids and dealing with the problems of puberty.

All of these family issues erupt into the open when the Barretts start experiencing a series of strange and frightening phenomena. On several occasions an invisible intruder vandalizes their house: stealing food from the refrigerator, constructing a stack of canned goods, removing all their photographs from their frames. When they inform the police, the cops naturally disbelieve their story about some mysterious personage and blame the incidents on their children.

The frights intensify as a flock of hundreds of birds crashes against the walls and windows of the house, and both children, and eventually both parents, suffer seizures and lapses of consciousness and memory. Lacy finally convinces Daniel of the danger and persuades him to accompany her to a consultation with Edwin Pollard (J.K. Simmons), a conspiracy nut and self-proclaimed expert on such phenomena. After hearing their story, he explains the nature of the menace and the reason for the attacks, a most dispiriting analysis.

Pollard tells the Barretts that their attackers are aliens, "the Grays," (really) from some other planet, who have inhabited the Earth for many years, randomly choosing human families to study and experiment on like laboratory specimens. Lacy and Daniel resolve to defend their children against the aliens, so they board up all the windows, arousing the mockery of their neighbors, buy a large, aggressive dog, and arm themselves with a serious shotgun for what turns out to be a climactic confrontation.

Like any of the nutty conspiracy theories available on some of the stranger cable TV channels, Pollard's thesis explains a great many mysteries, from power outages to juvenile allergies to unexplained and unsolved disappearances. But the Grays, who only appear as attenuated, two-dimensional, spidery shadows in darkened rooms, suggest some other internal threat, the disintegration of the nuclear family, the concrete manifestation of all the tension and pain in the Barretts' marriage, their troubled children, even the financial burden they can barely sustain.

The sense of an unknown terror lurking in some sunny, placid neighborhood contrasts nicely with the familiar peaceful community settings and the smug illusion of comfort and conformity in the safe environs of the subdivision. That the terror grows from within appropriately suits the notion of a superficial and deluded belief in the security and solidity of the average American home in the average American town, while in reality forces beyond the normal threaten chaos and loss, financial disaster, and emotional devastation.

The movie constantly shifted between the actual events the Barretts experience and the family's frequent nightmares, as if no barrier existed between reality and dream, and the two worlds fuse in horror. While the whole family faces a dreadful menace, in the grand tradition of the form, the children are the most vulnerable, the most likely victims: youth and innocence provide no defense against dangers from without and within, which summarizes the despair at the heart of "Dark Skies."