Coming Home in the Dark (2021)

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James Ashcroft’s ‘family terrorised in the wilderness’ horror is much more than it seems, revealing layers that explore human frailty and New Zealand’s dark past.

Based on a short story of the same name by Owen Marshall, we see ominous portents as a happy, squabbling family head into the austere and beautiful New Zealand landscape on a hiking trip. Dad Hoaggie (Erik Thomson who you might remember as Dave Rafter in Packed to the Rafters) is a bit of a dork, mum Jill (Miriama McDowell) keeps everyone on track and sons Maika and Jordan (Billy and Frankie Paratene) scuffle and whine like any teenagers on a long car trip.

Happily picnicking by an isolated lake, their peace is disturbed by menacing shotgun-toting Mandrake (Daniel Gillies looking a lot like Guy Peace) and taciturn Tubs (Matthias Luafutu). Seemingly randomly terrorising and taking the family hostage, they set off into the night in the family’s sedan and we know that things are looking grim.

What elevates the film from others of its ilk – from Wolf Creek (2005) to Killing Ground (2016) – is the slow reveal that the actions of Mandrake and Tubs may not be so random and that Hoaggie is not quite what he seems. In doing so, we discover aspects of New Zealand’s past that are not unique to this country, a shameful history that many, like Hoaggie, are trying to deny. In exposing these truths, the line between protagonist and antagonist is blurred.

The responses of the main characters to trauma and humiliation – and this is essentially a four-hander between Hoaggie, Jill, Mandrake and Tubs – seem to symbolise those visceral, uncontrollable responses to shame – avoidance, denial, attacking oneself and attacking others. We get glimpses of a barren and unending landscape that shows the isolation, not just of the protagonists but of each individual.

The ending is particularly satisfying, bringing a moment of poignancy to this blood-soaked tale.

Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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