Good horror films are imprinted by the fears and anxieties of the day, converting real-life atrocities into abstracted scares; mediocre ones are imprinted, too, but with trends and commercial formulas. If Dark Skies resurfaced on TV or brain implant 20 or 30 years from now, horror fans would be able to carbon-date the film almost to the month. It’s a generic repository of everything that’s currently en vogue in commercial horror: a PG-13 haunted-house movie with body possession, lots of digital shocks, and some of the surveillance-cam creep of the Paranormal Activity series. The lone twist? The ghosts are aliens. In cases like Dark Skies, when the filmmaking is competent but largely forgettable, it takes some hard squinting to detect the difference, but writer-director Scott Stewart, whose previous features include the dismal Legion and Priest, gets a small edge from his portrait of a hard-luck family on the brink.
Before these hostile extraterrestrials escalate their hauntings from harmless appliance-stacking to full-on corporeal invasion, the middle-class family of four they’ve targeted is having its share of problems. The perpetually half-shaven Josh Hamilton is unemployed, while his wife (Keri Russell), a real-estate agent, struggles to convince buyers that a hopelessly dated fixer-upper is a great opportunity. The tension between them weakens their resolve once mysterious events start happening in their home, like all the family pictures going missing from the frames, or a flock of birds cascading from the sky like the frogs in Magnolia. There are simple explanations for these incidents until there are too many incidents to explain, leading them to investigate questionable sources for answers.
Adding family discord to an already-edgy situation is part of what distinguished Martin Scorsese’s 1991 Cape Fear from the 1962 original. It works here, too, as Hamilton and Russell have trouble presenting a united front, and some of their sons’ initial troubles can be chalked up to behavioral issues from their parents’ scrapping. There’s also a welcome two-scene turn by J.K. Simmons as a cat-crazy conspiracy theorist who offers his diagnosis. But the grinding familiarity of every beat eventually takes its toll, and films like Dark Skies, with their pile-up of spooks and phenomena, always have trouble sticking the landing. Once a horror film has to explain the inexplicable, it loses its mystique—and Dark Skies didn’t bank that much mystique to begin with.