‘Cloak & Dagger’ is an Essential Gateway Horror Film [Watch]

Cloak & Dagger

Welcome to The Overlook Motel, a place where under-seen and unappreciated films are given their moment in the spotlight. I hope you enjoy your stay here and find the accommodations to be suitable. Now, please take a seat and make yourself comfortable, I have some misbehaving guests to ‘correct’.  

This week’s selection isn’t a proper horror film. But it is a gateway genre picture with horror elements. And it comes from prolific horror filmmakers Richard Franklin (Psycho II) and Tom Holland (Fright Night). So, its inclusion here certainly makes sense. What’s more, Cloak & Dagger is a film the whole family can enjoy. Watching it with my dad as a youngster served as a special bonding experience that I still fondly remember today.

The flick throws child protagonist Davey Osborne (Henry Thomas) into a real-life version of his favorite video game, Cloak & Dagger. While on a routine trip to pick up a brochure from a game developer, Davey encounters a dying man who entrusts him with an Atari game cartridge containing government trade secrets. Unfortunately for Davey, the police, his father (Dabney Coleman), and even his best friend Kim (Christina Nigra) think his imagination is simply running wild and they dismiss his claims. That makes Davey a sitting duck when a group of espionage agents comes looking for the game cartridge. From there, Davey must rely on his wits and the guidance of his imaginary friend Jack Flack (also Dabney Coleman) to fight for his very survival and to protect national security.  

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Seeing it in my formative years, Cloak & Dagger made me feel like I could do anything an adult could. I felt empowered and I felt ready to intercept government secrets the moment I was inevitably called upon to do so. Surprisingly, it hasn’t happened (yet). However, I still get a rush from watching this surprisingly dark action thriller to this day. Even if you are checking it out for the first time as an adult, my dad and my husband both first saw the flick in adulthood, and each of them connected with it in a meaningful way. So, while the nostalgia filter plays a role in my adoration for this picture, it still has plenty to offer viewers of any age.  

Cloak & Dagger comes from a time when children in mainstream studio pictures ran free with minimal interference from parental figures. That distinction works to remarkable effect here because although Davey is just a kid, he’s dealing with a series of very adult situations. And the notion that he’s in way over his head serves to paint him as a protagonist that is equal parts capable and vulnerable. That sense of vulnerability serves to add an additional layer of intensity to an already harrowing cinematic effort. 

The film works well for a variety of reasons. One is a great protagonist. In the face of grave danger, Davey proves himself a resourceful leader who keeps his wits about him. Without giving it a second thought, he puts the greater good ahead of his own self-interests. And that makes him instantly relatable. It’s also helpful that Davey is brought to life with consummate skill by a young Henry Thomas. Though Thomas was just a kid himself, he brings a certain depth to Davey that we don’t often see from a child actor. He believably conveys a level of grief (over the untimely loss of his mother) that lurks beneath the surface and informs his perspective. He doesn’t convey it as much with spoken word as he does by way of mannerisms and body language. Very impressive, indeed. 

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As for the horror overtones I alluded to earlier, the film’s creators lean into the macabre in a few different ways. One is by way of the relationship Davey has with the espionage agents. Holland’s screenplay puts the child protagonist in very real peril. When duplicitous ringleader Rice (a chilling turn from Michael Murphy) corners Davey by the waterfront, he delivers a monologue about how he could use his automatic weapon to turn Davey into ‘shredded meat’ in about two seconds. But he tells Davey he’d rather shoot him in the stomach instead and watch him die slowly. That terrified me as a kid but I loved it. The idea that someone my age could be in that kind of danger was frightening but also empowering, almost intoxicating. I’m not sure that exchange would have made it into a film in the modern era where helicopter parenting has become the new norm. But I’m sure glad we have films like this to look back on. 

Yet another reason I still appreciate Cloak & Dagger after all these years pertains to some surprisingly insightful commentary on everyday heroes and how they often go overlooked and unsung. Said commentary comes by way of Davey’s relationship with his father, Hal, and his imaginary friend, Jack. Dabney Coleman featuring in a double role drives home the point that while Davey wishes his dad were flashy and exciting like his imaginary pal, he initially fails to see that his father is a real-life hero. His dad has been there to put a roof over his head and food on the table. And he has been there to comfort young Davey in the wake of his mother’s death. That messaging could easily have come across as ham-fisted and clunky. But Richard Franklin frames it in such a way that it reads as poignant, touching, and a welcome reprieve from the intensity of the narrative. 

All in, Cloak & Dagger is a thrilling and macabre effort that had a moment with ‘80s kids but it’s ready to be discovered by a new audience. The flick is available as a digital rental from all the usual suspects. And it can also be tracked down on physical media. In fact, Vinegar Syndrome recently gave it the royal treatment in 4K. My only critique of the Vin Syn release is that there are some typos on the packaging. But other than that, it stands as the definitive edition of this epic tale. 

That’s all for this installment of The Overlook Motel. If you want to chat more about under-seen and underrated films, feel free to hit me up with your thoughts on Twitter @FunWithHorror



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