Maisie Armstrong’s parents return from a brief trip to the local town to find signs of a struggle and their 8-year-old daughter missing. One year on the grief-stricken family have united with friends for dinner after a memorial service for Maisie. They’re a complete mess – mum Olivia (Laura Fraser) is drifting like a ghost through her days so wracked with grief she can barely speak. Dad, Ray (Mel Raido) has let grief turn him nasty looking for any opportunity to pick a fight with his friends and his son, Noah (Spike White). While unspoken the guilt of leaving her alone weighs heavily on both of them – their bodies are almost stooped with it. Son Noah struggles with his grief over his missing sister and his anger at his father’s coldness. A disastrous dinner party is interrupted by strange lights in the sky. As the family investigate things take a turn for the worse as they find themselves under siege from an otherworldly force. But what do these creatures want?
The first hour or so of Dark Encounter plays out like an extended version of the first 5 minutes of any number of 1990’s X-Files episodes. You know the first couple of minutes where all manner of shenanigans happen before Mulder and Scully appear on the scene. We get strange, ethereal glowing lights, menacing tall alien figures and the cast vanishing one by one. The set up is well executed by writer/director Carl Strathie if perhaps more than a tad generic. Things aren’t quite as spooky or nerve-tingling as you would like. Strathie is aided by a solid cast who, in true low budget horror movie tradition, are all Brits playing American. It is a credit to the cast that with one notable exception I only realised they weren’t American when I looked them up on IMDB.
But just when you think you know where the narrative is going the movie switches gears entirely as the film’s central mystery is revealed. Genre and detective fans may be ahead of the film here (I certainly was) but that doesn’t make the reveal any less powerful. There is a 15 minute, beautifully scored, nearly dialogue-free sequence which elevates the entire film from being a passable X Files lite piece to something really quite special. It’s a clammy, dread-inducing sequence that is almost physically painful to watch. The cast’s near-wordless reactions to Maisie’s fate is one of the single most powerful sequences I’ve seen in a horror film.
If you give it time Dark Encounter rewards you with a powerful, moving exploration of guilt and loss.
Dark Encounter premiered at Frightfest today and is released by Signature Entertainment on dvd/digital in the UK on 21st October.