There’s something that a good action-tinged horror film does to the soul. When it’s well-executed, it just satisfies. Throw in invasive themes and/or human sacrifice, and the recipe for success is guaranteed. You can see these elements in Erik Boccio’s NIGHT OF THE BASTARD; there’s potential for something great. Unfortunately, as it stands on delivery, it’s a mixed bag of spells that fails to take hold. But it’ll find its audience.

The film starts off in 1978 in what is a strong tone-setter. We’re introduced to a couple with child driving out in the desert countryside. All seems innocent and happy until it stops. Things escalate upon arriving at their destination before they are both brutally slaughtered as part of a cult-like ritual. In setting the tone, Boccio does a great job. However, the tone gets abandoned as we transition to the present day, and never fully recovers the intensity from there.

We’re introduced to loner hermit Reed (London May) who prefers keeping to himself off the grid with his favorite little turtle buddy. One night, he is interrupted by a group of 20-somethings who have trespassed onto his land to party. After kicking them out, they find themselves confronted with the cult introduced at the beginning of the film led by a new priestess, Claire (Hannah Pierce). All but Kiera (Mya Hudson) are killed and, as luck has it, Reed has to help Kiera survive the night or else.

An uneven pairing

Courtesy Dark Sky Films

Leading up to the final act, NIGHT OF THE BASTARD follows a standard formula for the scenario it’s presented. Our reluctant pair, Reed and Kiera, must keep themselves alive long enough to either kill this gang of cultists or at least drive them away. We have periods where the threat of the cult is present but, rather than a slow steady build-up of tension, we have short adrenalin burst moments instead. Depending on the viewer, this stop/start method of progression can deter interest rather than maintain it.

The chemistry and delivery from our main pair are a bit hard to swallow too. Part of this can be attributed to the direction, the dialogue, and the actors themselves. Of the bunch, May’s performance as Reed is the most grounded, and he delivers what’s needed. There are levels. There’s mystery. He does a bang-up job.

Comparatively, Hudson’s Kiera doesn’t have much in the way of levels in their performance. The character mostly shouts. Given some of the moments between Kiera and Reed, there was opportunity to showcase different variations of frustration and anger. Instead, the range showcased is limited and, ultimately, May comes out the stronger actor in comparison.

Courtesy Dark Sky Films

Then there are the cultists. They start off as frightening in the opening scene. However, jumping forward, the threat reads as neutered. Part of this is due to the clunky dialogue. Pierce does their best working with the lines given, but the delivery is awkward. The cultists aside from Pierce’s Claire are mostly forgettable and, unfortunately, fail to inspire terror.

Without giving away spoilers, the third act is a bit bonkers and aims to fill in the questions we might have had from the opening scene leading up to this point. While some of it is hits, the attempts to tie loose ends end up facilitating more questions than answers. However, the throughline of hopelessness that punctuated the opener carries through to the closer, which is a win. With a strong opening and an almost successful ending, it becomes more clear that the middle needed more work to carry that same energy to create more of a cohesive feeling.

Overall, it’s difficult to dismiss the potential NIGHT OF THE BASTARD has. The opening and closing scenes are strong in this feature debut from Boccio. The issues mostly are in the dialogue, the direction, and strengthening the middle, which are all things that can be improved upon in future projects. Walking away from the film, I am left curious to see what Boccio comes up with next. Again, the potential is visible. For fans of B-movie vibes, NIGHT OF THE BASTARD may find a safe and happy viewing home.

NIGHT OF THE BASTARD comes to Select Theaters, Digital & VOD on January 13, 2023, via Dark Sky Films.

Sarah Musnicky
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