You’re going to want to take a big deep breath before sitting down to watch James Ashcroft’s Coming Home In The Dark. It’s the kind of movie that threatens to knock the wind out of you over and over and over, and somehow you’re still not prepared when it does finally land a blow. The virtual audience at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival was warned that “this is not for the faint of heart”. I think a lot of seasoned horror fans out there will have no trouble dealing with some of the film’s darker elements but there’s no denying that it is a hard watch.
Everybody grieves in their own way, they say, but there is no playbook for how you are supposed to carry on after living through the worst day of your life. And, of course, no one wakes up thinking, “Today is going to be the day I live to regret forever”. That is especially true for the family at the center of Ashcroft’s heart-pounding thriller. What begins as an idyllic hiking trip in the hills or rural New Zealand becomes a waking nightmare after two drifters take the family hostage.
“…Ashcroft manipulates the narrative focus of this tense tale to paint a larger picture about the destructive nature of trauma.”
Ruthless doesn’t even begin to explain the type of psychopath these cruel bastards are. The line still ringing in my ears comes from a particularly grim moment when the lead baddie, Mandrake, calmly explains that “later on, when you’re looking back at this occasion, I think that right there is going to be the moment you wish you had done something“. That regret of wishing you had done something is the cornerstone of so many survival movies (especially survival movies that feel like true-crime yet to be written) but it is a sentiment explored in great detail throughout Coming Home In The Dark. As the drifters toy and taunt Jill (Miriama McDowell) and her husband Hoagie (Erik Thomson) over the course of the night, they are forced to confront ghosts from the past they had hoped would stay buried forever.
Mandrake, played by Daniel Gillies (Spider-Man 2) is a black hole of a human being, consuming and destroying everything that comes within reach of him. He is truly terrifying but the real brilliance of his performance comes from the slow-evolving construction of his character as he reveals more and more of himself and his accomplice Tubs (Matthias Luafutu) to Jill & Hoagie. Playing in the grey areas of responsibility, Ashcroft manipulates the narrative focus of this tense tale to paint a larger picture about the destructive nature of trauma. You can’t stop the ripples in a pond after you’ve thrown a pebble into it, and you stop the pain of a violent act after you’ve already ruined a person forever. There is no apologizing for something that cannot be undone because the future will always be colored by the past. You may get front-loaded with some brutal acts of violence but that meditation on cause & effect is the real dark thread woven into the fabric of Coming Home In The Dark.
“…unbearably tense, brutally nerve-racking, and worth every flutter of your fight or flight response.”
There is no neat bow that gets wrapped at the end of a movie like Coming Home In The Dark. Instead, it’s a film that recognizes happy endings do not exist for stories born from cruel beginnings. It’s the only hurdle I had to jump in appreciating the film- other than, you know, all the soul-draining moments of impending doom. It’s a character study that asks the viewer to decide who the real protagonist is (which is an interesting choice) but it makes for a surprisingly chaotic ending that feels like it’s looking for a purpose as desperately as the character wrapped up in this whole mess. Make no mistake though, Coming Home In The Dark is unbearably tense, brutally nerve-racking, and worth every flutter of your fight or flight response.
James Ashcroft’s Coming Home In The Dark celebrated its World Premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Click HERE to follow our full coverage of the festival and be sure to let us know if you’re excited to check out this tense thriller over on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and in the official Nightmare on Film Street Discord. Not a social media fan? Get more horror delivered straight to your inbox by joining the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.