Although Netflix is generally not the first (or the fourth, or the ninth…) streaming service I think of when I’m looking for some good horror, every now and then they surprise me by platforming a real gem that I previously only heard about through word of mouth, and happily, this turned out to be one of those times.
The road-trip horror thriller Coming Home in the Dark hails from New Zealand, and had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2021 before arriving on Netflix in autumn of the same year. Directed by James Ashcroft—in his feature-length debut—from a screenplay penned by Ashcroft and Eli Kent, the film was based on a 1995 short story by Kiwi author Owen Marshall. Though the straightforward setup of the story will be very familiar to horror fans, the character work and brutal tension make this one a mesmerizing watch that leaves you tense and unsettled during its entire runtime.
At the very beginning of the movie, we open on a wonderfully ominous shot that immediately sets the disquieting tone: it’s a Mercedes that’s clearly abandoned on the side of the road, its door wide open, a swatch of pink fabric—as from a skirt—gently undulating in the breeze. The camera lingers on the silent, empty car for a few moments until another vehicle passes on the road, its occupants oblivious to the foreshadowing of their own fates lying just yards away on the dusty shoulder.
We’re then introduced to our main characters, a family of four on a road trip into the breathtaking mountain scenery of New Zealand. Alan “Hoaggie” Hoaganraad and his wife Jill are both teachers, and they have two teenage sons, Maika and Jordan. For the first few minutes, the trip proceeds in the same way numerous cinematic road trips have done, with arguments over music, snack stops, and attempts to play games to pass the time.
Not long after, the family arrives at their destination and begins their hike; some minimal character development hinting at the differing relationships Hoaggie has with his two sons is subtly apparent. One of the sons, Maika, spots what appear to be the silhouettes of two men over a ridge some distance away, waving at them as though in greeting. Maika seems uneasy, but says nothing about the men to anyone else. The family eventually sets up a picnic at a spot on the waterfront with a public toilet on the other bank, but no other sign of civilization.
They’ve only been sitting there a brief time when the two men from the ridge approach them, and from the first sight of the pair, the family are put on their guard. The first man, the one who does all the talking, is a lanky white dude with a beard, a moustache, and a dark, penetrating stare; the other is an even taller and lankier Indigenous fellow who barely speaks at all. The white man introduces himself as Mandrake, and his companion as Tubs.
It’s immediately clear that these two are up to no good, and this fact becomes indisputable once Mandrake produces a high-powered hunting rifle. He intimates that he’s going to rob the family, and in particular seems to want their vehicle. Hoaggie and Jill immediately acquiesce, throwing the men their keys, but the pair then force the family to lie face down on the ground and warn them not to turn their heads to look at them. This is the first of many unbearably suspenseful sequences; everything is shot in tight closeups or otherwise framed in such a way that the viewer is never entirely sure what exactly is going to happen next, which form the danger is going to take.
After a shocking and savage occurrence that I won’t spoil, which lets the viewer know in the most violent way possible that all bets are now off, the criminals force the family into their own vehicle and proceed to take them on another kind of road trip, a nightmare journey that they were in no way prepared for. Along the way, more information is revealed about the principal characters, both the protagonists and the antagonists, that muddy the waters of morality somewhat. I won’t go so far as to say that you’ll grow to sympathize with the attackers, because Mandrake at least is a sociopathic monster, but as details of their back stories and their prior knowledge of Hoaggie’s history unfold, it becomes more obvious that whatever is going on here, it isn’t a stark black and white situation.
Coming Home After Dark is at its heart a simple but chillingly effective thriller that cranks the anxiety level up to eleven from the very first frame and leaves it there until the end credits run. But it also has another layer of depth in which it’s seeking to explore the manner in which childhood abuse can reverberate back on the society that stands by and allows it to happen. It also wrestles with the thorny problem of how many shades of gray separate the actual doing of evil, and the knowledge of said evil occurring but being too cowardly to try to stop it.
The movie is certainly vicious, but not gory, as much of the violence is implied or kept mostly off screen, but in some ways that makes it more affecting, as you can fill in the blanks with your own imagination. This isn’t torture porn, in other words, but the restraint actually serves to make the savagery feel more real, as you never get desensitized to it through repetition.
The acting work here is also top-notch; the cast is small, but all the players are phenomenal, particularly Daniel Gillies, who oozes menace as Mandrake, and Matthias Luafutu as Tubs, whose facial expressions and body language convey a complexity that mere words wouldn’t do justice.
Although horror films like this are practically a subgenre unto themselves—The Hills Have Eyes, Race with the Devil, Road Games, Death Valley, The Hitcher, Kalifornia, Breakdown, Wrong Turn, Wolf Creek, Eden Lake, among many examples—that’s only because the premise is so relatable to so many people, and when done effectively, movies like this have the potential to be really terrifying as we can imagine ourselves thrust into the same grim circumstances as the characters. Coming Home in the Dark ably carries on the storied tradition of road-trip horror with a lean, mean, nerve-jangling narrative that keeps you on the edge of your chair expecting the worst, and also provides a more nuanced approach to its supposed heroes and villains. It’s definitely one of the better new horror films I’ve seen turn up on Netflix in quite a while, and I’d recommend it to anyone who loves a good, genuinely frightening thriller about a hapless family terrorized by psychopaths.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.