Perhaps the scariest thing we can do is face the demons of our past. This is an all-too-common trope of thriller and horror filmmaking, with said demons often taking the form of some supernatural or religious entity. Perhaps, however, the most terrifying thing those films can do is strip that all away and leave nothing but us and a mirror held up to our biggest mistakes and regrets. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
Based on a short story of the same name, 'Coming Home in the Dark' is a ruthless, 93-minute rush of revenge cinema from New Zealand centred on a school teacher's family day trip from hell. Lighthearted car banter and mountainside self-timer photos populate Hoaggie's (Erik Thomson, 'Storm Boy') day with his wife Jill (Miriama McDowell, 'Waru') and sons Maika (Billy Paratene) and Jordan (Frankie Paratene), but these come to an abrupt halt not long into the trip. In a 'Funny Games'-esque hijacking of their picturesque picnic, a mysterious stranger Mandrake (Daniel Gillies, TV's 'The Originals') and his sidekick Tubs (Matthias Luafutu, 'Ghost In The Shell') happen upon the family. Mandrake is a man of patience and dressed in an outfit that wouldn't be out of place in a Western film; brown coat on, gun in hand, the monologue he gives leaves audience's hearts with nowhere to go other than right up into their throats. Tubs, just as unnervingly, is silent. We know this won't end well, and the intense opening scene leaves half of the quartet dead before they have even embarked on the rest of their trip, or before Mandrake's true intentions come to light.
SWITCH: 'COMING HOME IN THE DARK' TRAILER
First-time director James Ashcroft challenges viewers' internal film-watching clock, making us wait for each sequence of brutal violence for so long that it forces you into a false sense of calm - surely, one thinks, if something bad was going to happen, it would have by now, right? Until the far more conventional finale, Ashcroft's understanding and challenging of when a film deploys its violence is a stomach-dropping sight to behold. Additionally, Matt Henley's (TV's 'Wellington Paranormal') unforgivingly cold cinematography quickly turns the beauty of the open Kiwi landscape into a barren nightmare that guarantees no sanctuary.
I'll keep the details of Mandrake's grudge sparse, for knowing them before viewing definitely robs 'Coming Home in the Dark' of its subtlety. Thankfully, the performances from the cast are superb, even when some of their characters' choices can feel extreme (but of course, definitely rational in a high stakes, life-or-death scenario like the one Hoaggie and his family face). McDowell's desperate attempts to escape the hell she's found herself in are made all the more painful by how useless and unwilling her husband is to help her. Erik Thomson is best known for TV's 'Packed to the Rafters,' and this comforting paternal shadow from his previous role lends itself to buying early audience sympathy for Hoaggie, and later frustration at his own cowardice and selfishness. It plays less like as an acknowledgment of needing to atone for one's sins and more as a desire to save his own skin. Gillies is magnetic as Mandrake, especially given he does the heaviest lifting of anyone in the film, tasked with toeing the line between the blind vengeance one would need to pull off his character's plan in the first place, and the casual cruelness that makes him all-intimidating. He's a skilled enough actor that he can pull it off, but it also muddies the film's execution of its core themes of complicity, guilt and revenge, and plot is too contrived to fully buy into.
'Coming Home in the Dark' turns the beauty of the open Kiwi landscape into a barren nightmare that guarantees no sanctuary.
The initial threat of a dangerous stranger intruding on a seemingly innocent man's family trip is quickly replaced with a settle to score, the fear of one's long-buried regrets of the past being dug up right when they least expect it. It's unclear whether Mandrake has been following Hoaggie and his family with the intent of striking on this trip, but his reaction to first hearing Hoaggie's name suggests he's randomly hit the revenge jackpot. This is strange given that Mandrake is intimidating right off the bat, which if he didn't know he would find Hoaggie would imply the far more silly idea of Mandrake and Tubs randomly taking their trauma out on anyone unlucky enough to encounter them, which doesn't at all fit with the film's tone. Mandrake and Tubs are criminals, plain and simple, but the horror of their malice is in its pointed intent, and while Peter and Paul, the intruders from 'Funny Games,' are terrifying for their random cruelty, 'Coming Home in the Dark' doesn't quite handle this switch as effectively as it wants to.
'Coming Home in the Dark' in no way reinvents the revenge film wheel, but it's such a taught, terrifying, and downright nasty little film that its shortcomings can be forgiven. You'll be too sick with dread to worry much about them anyway.