There’s Canuxploitation. And then there’s Ozploitation. The Babadook, Wolf Creek, and Rogue are just a few examples of some the great horror movies that the land Down Under has exported to us. But New Zealand doesn’t have much of a reputation for its horror exports. Peter Jackson (Braindead) does come from New Zealand and the director’s early work definitely qualifies as splatter horror. Beyond What We Do in the Shadows, Deathgasm, and Housebound, however, the list of New Zealand horror gets thing. Earlier in 2021, the brutal revenge thriller Coming Home in the Dark premiered before making its way to Netflix. To date, critics have raved about this dark tale and it has found its way on to a few ‘Best of’ lists.
For Alan ‘Hoaggie’ Hoaganraad, it was supposed to be a quiet day with his wife and sons driving along the New Zealand coast. But when two strangers interrupt their picnic, Hoaggie’s family faces a brutal fight for survival. And Hoaggie’s past – a secret he has hidden from his wife and maybe himself – has finally caught up with him.
Coming Home in the Dark a Disturbing, Lingering Thriller
If Coming Home in the Dark has a comparison, it would be Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin. Both movies are somber examinations of past wrongs and revenge. Based on Owen Marshall’s short-story, writer and director James Ashcroft crafts a movie defined by contrasts. On one hand, Coming Home in the Dark fills the screen with beautiful, haunting shots of New Zealand’s coastline. Much of the movie is quiet and contemplative, relying on facial expressions and a melancholy score. Yet it’s also disturbingly violent. Its first violence act catches you off guard in no small part due to how Ashcroft films it. Don’t expect fancy editing or stylistic flourishes. Here, the violence is almost perfunctory. But that first act makes every subsequent scene feels urgent.
…Coming Home in the Dark is about how our past never goes away.
Coming Home in the Dark also offers audiences a morally ambiguous and complex tale of revenge. Some viewers may take issue with the random connection – and teasing out of this connection – that brings the characters together. Yet it’s also entirely in keeping with the thriller’s themes. That is, Coming Home in the Dark is about how our past never goes away. It also addresses trauma, abuse, personality responsibility and, yes, the nature of revenge. Ashcroft doesn’t offer any answers; the movie’s closing scene refuses to give any closure. But this movie will linger with you.
Layered Performances and Morally Ambiguous Characters Set Coming Home in the Dark Apart from Other Revenge Thrillers
What sets Coming Home in the Dark apart from other revenge thrillers is its nuanced characters. Initially, there’s a clear dichotomy, and superficial distinction, between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Immediately upon their arrival, Mandrake and Tubs stand in marked contrast to the wholesome Hoaganraad family. As mentioned above, however, Coming Home in the Dark quickly blurs lines and challenges perceptions. Much of the credit here goes to Daniel Gillies who commands the screen as ‘Mandrake’. Charismatic, vile, wounded – Gillies makes ‘Mandrake’ all these things. When Hoaggie recounts an instance of abuse that he didn’t stop, ‘Mandrake’ looks stone-faced save for a few tears. It’s a heartbreaking scene reliant solely on facial expressions. And it doesn’t work without Gillies.
Charismatic, vile, wounded – Gillies makes ‘Mandrake’ all these things.
In addition to Gillies’ stunning performance, Erik Thomson and Miriama McDowell, playing husband and wife, are no less impressive. ‘Hoaggie’ is initially sympathetic but as the narrative exposes more about him, Thomson plays the role in an equally ambiguous manner. Neither villainous nor pathetic, Thomson gives a complex, layered performance. His ‘Hoaggie’ is a man forced to confront his past while struggling with immense personal loss. On the flip side of this moral dilemma, McDowell delivers an emotionally wrenching performance, particularly as she learns more about her husband. Though Matthias Luafutu (Tubs) gets less to do it’s the wounded look in his face that gives Coming Home in the Dark its bitter ending.
Coming Home in the Dark a Brutal Exploration of Abuse and Revenge
Though it’s technically not a horror movie, Coming Home in the Dark is as brutal and disturbing as any genre movie in recent memory. Like the quietly brilliant Blue Ruin, Ashcroft’s feature length debut is an emotional tour de force exploration of revenge. But it also pulls back the curtain on abuse and personal responsibility. All of its tension and suspense – of which there is plenty – is earned. Everything emotion audiences will experience comes from the heart of the story and characters, not film-making magic. Bottom line, Coming Home in the Dark is required viewing in 2021. You may not watch it a second time, but you should watch it once.