Friday, September 2, 2011

Should You Be Afraid of DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK ...?!


From the opening minutes of DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, there's a great vibe to the film that took me back to the days of being a kid and watching things like Jim Henson's "Storyteller" series. There's this dark, creepy, magical, fairytale-ish feeling to this movie that really is its biggest strength. And it makes perfect sense then that the movie is in fact a remake of an old, obscure, made-for-TV movie that entranced a young Guillermo Del Toro way back when. Co-writer and producer Del Toro, along with director Troy Nixey, help to recreate that same sort of late-night creepshow feel. It's a lot of fun, because the heightened, whimsical reality of the film is a breath of fresh air from the glut of grittier, more realistic horror movies we've seen of late. At the same time, I think the movie nails the vibe, the atmosphere - but misses the mark when it comes to the details. The script, the story, the characters - they never quite come together in a way that makes sense or that gets you 100% invested. The scares are there, but the movie ultimately feels somewhat flimsy and inconsequential.

DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is in many ways a classic haunted house story, but with a distinctly fairy-tale twist. The movie's prologue takes us back 100 years or so, and immediately sets a gothic, visually-stunning tone. We see the sprawling manor where the movie is set. We go down to its dungeon-like basement, where Blackwood - the manor's frantic, bloodied owner -grotesquely feeds a plate of human teeth to a mysterious assemblage of creatures that dwell deep within the bowels of the house. We don't see the creatures - not yet. But hear their hissing, needy voices. A bargain had been struck - children's teeth in exchange for the life of the man's son. But he's brought them adult teeth. No good. The creatures are displeased, and extract their bloody pennance. Now, it's decades later - the present day. We meet a young girl, Sally, who's come from California to dank, rural Rhode Island. She's come to live with her father Alex and his new girlfriend Kim. Together, they restore homes, and their current project is of course the gothic Blackwood manor from the prologue, where they've taken up residence while they work. It isn't long before Sally's presence stirs the long-dormant creatures who dwell in the dark corners of the house. Soon enough, they come after her. And Sally - terrified and going out of her young mind - can't convince Alex or Kim that monsters lurk in their new home.

The premise of the film is set up with a lot of visual imagination and cool creepiness. The movie just oozes darkness and wetness and chilly New England air. It definitely gave me a certain feeling that reminded me of cold, spooky nights as a kid in Connecticut. And on that level, the film really gets a lot right. It helps that Guy Pierce as Alex and Katie Holmes as Kim do a great job at maintaining the movie's heightened tone. Pierce always excels at bringing a slightly-left-of-center theatricality to his roles, and that is why he's such a great genre actor. He does a great job hear of playing a dad who's going a bit mad trying to balance caring for his newly-arrived daughter with his all-consuming architectural project. As time goes on, Alex comes across as increasingly dickish, but I think he is here to play a very specific role. He's the skeptic. The guy too caught up in real-world work problems to pay much attention to the fact that tiny demonic monsters may live in his home. And Holmes is very solid as well. She's the more down-to-earth character who's a bit more attuned to what's really going on, and it's a role that suits her well. As for Bailie Madison, who plays Sally ... she's good but I have to say, the way she plays Sally, the character almost seems *too* sad and depressed. Like Sally is seriously crying and miserable and sullen for almost the entire movie. It's too much, I think. Sally gets to have a couple moments of pluckiness where she gets to fight back against the creatures a bit, but man ... she is one of the saddest kid characters I've ever seen in a movie. Honestly, I think Sally's constant depression makes the film just a bit sadder and more depressing than was intended. Nixey and Del Toro could have possibly tweaked the script a bit, I think, to give Sally some more moments of playfulness to counteract all the glumness.

And I think that the script is where the movie falters the most. There just isn't a lot of internal logic from scene to scene. The creatures' motivations never quite make sense, and neither does the way they act towards Sally. At first they try to convince her that they are her friends. At some point, they ditch the act and just seem to be trying to kill her. Or do they want her teeth? Or what? And there's something about a prophecy where the creatures have to take one life every hundred years as well, but that's never really explained either. And why can't they leave the house? What's keeping them there? I don't need a ton of details or over-explanations, but the movie keeps throwing us all of these plot points that eventually get contradicted, or else are just never really followed up on. Meanwhile, there are a lot of the expected scenes where Sally unsuccessfully tries to convince Alex and Kim of the creatures' existence. But, the movie only half-heartedly lets Sally really try to make her case. And Alex and Kim never really come around until the very end of the movie. Suffice it to say, there's A LOT of Sally pleading with them that she's being stalked by little monsters and Alex and Kim just brushing her off and assuming she's crazy (there's mention of the fact that she's medicated and in therapy, but still ...).

I also had slightly mixed feelings about how the creatures were handled. They are at their coolest and creepiest, I think, when we don't actually see them. Or, when we see them in the creepy drawings of Blackwood and then Sally (both, it seems, are artists with a flair for the grotesque). But when the creatures are in full view, they don't look quite as cool. Too much like humanoid rats or something. And they feel a bit flimsy in that CGI-rendered sort of way, lacking the visceral punch of old-school hand-made creatures like, say, the Gremlins. And like I said, what the creatures actually *do* when they're unleashed varies wildly from scene to scene. You're never sure if they're out to kill, maim, terrorize, or just make mischief.

Still, despite the narrative inconsistincies, Nixey gives the movie a nice, deliberate pace that really ups the creepiness. There were many scenes that had me biting my fingernails, and there were definitely some big jump-scares as well. The tension definitely gets nicely ratcheted-up at certain points.

And overall, I appreciated the movie most for that visual imagination and fairy-tale darkness that permeated the film. It's not quite as lush an gorgeously-rendered as some of Del Toro's best-known directorial efforts, but the film definitely has that signature Del Toro vibe as channeled by Nixey. I did wonder what the movie might have looked like if it had been directed by Del Toro himself. Perhaps Guillermo could have cranked up the visual craziness just enough to help the movie overcome its other issues. As is, the movie's failings keep it from being great, but it's enjoyable enough if you sit back, relax, and just allow yourself to get pulled in to the movie's creepy, gothic world.

My Grade: B

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