Friday, April 27, 2012

Review: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Don’t Be Afraid of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

A Movie Review

Kids today are desensitized, or at least, that’s what the media tells me.  I don’t know for sure myself, I spend too much of my time watching Clive Owen punch carrots through people’s skulls and draining the life force out of people with my lightning powers.

This is a problem that the media has been telling us about for a long, long time.  Parents continually find themselves outraged over the media and how risqué it’s become.  In I Dream of Jeanie, the title character had to have her bellybutton filled in with putty because the sight of a woman’s navel would send the adolescent male into a screeching, sex-crazed rage, apparently.  In The Brady Bunch, somehow the Brady family managed to function in a house without a single toilet.  Hell, the entire plot of Monsters, Inc. revolves around how much harder it is to scare kids these days when they’re so desensitized.

One genre that I find particularly enjoyable, and that can generate up some pretty good scares, is the haunted house genre.  From The Haunting, in the 1960’s, all to the way to modern haunted house style movies like Paranormal Activity and Silent House, movie-goers still love the idea of a big empty house with all of the bangs and creaks that go with it.  However, this genre seems to be hit or miss.  The 1960’s version of The Haunting is considered a cinematic masterpiece, while the remake is well…not considered a masterpiece.  Stephen King has even taken a few cracks at the genre with his novel The Shining, the Stanley Kubrick movie, the made-for-television remake, and the his movie Rose Red to name a few.  I, personally, like the genre because, when done right, they can be atmospheric and moody, building the tension through subtlety and good pacing, right up until the tense ending.

And then there was Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.

To be fair, I had just come off of the movie Insidious, which I loved.  The trailer for Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was played before that movie, and the trailer made it look fantastic.  The creepy, slow shots, the whispered voice, the silent, long build up before the spooky face.  It looked like it would be pretty good--plus GUILLERMO DEL TORRO! OF HELLBOY AND PAN’S LABYRINTH FAME!

Now, I know it’s a remake of an old made-for-television movie with the same name, but I’ve never seen it, and so I went in with only the impressions I got from the trailer.  One thing I can say for sure…it was incredibly disappointing.

To the movie’s credit, it started fantastically.  The opening scene was very well done.  A maid is wandering through her house looking for her master.  She hears him call for her in the basement, and she goes down there to investigate.  He has placed a tripwire across the stairs, however, causing her to fall down the stairs and knock herself out—but not completely.  Meanwhile, the crazy master of the house, Lord Blackwood, scrambles over to her with a hammer and chisel and smashes the teeth out of her mouth, babbling nonsense about needing teeth.

The scene, while disturbing, is not gory.  In fact, the shot is framed in such a way that you don’t see him actually strike her with the hammer.  He simply brings the hammer down and you hear a crunching sound.  Gross, but not gory, and that makes it work great.  The implied violence is so much creepier than seeing it for real.

Once he has the woman’s teeth, he puts them in a little tray, with his own teeth, and sets them in a fireplace looking thingy, and begins talking to…something…about wanting his son back and that he brought the teeth as payment.  The only reply is the echoey whispered response, “Child’s teeth.”

Chilling!  Creepy!  Awesome!

Blackwood protests that the teeth he’s presented is all he has.  He mentions that he even sacrificed his own teeth and then begs them to give him back his son.  Instead, they suck him into the grate, where he’s presumably eaten.


The opening credits are cool too.  Very mysterious, interesting, and kind of like something Hitchcock would have done with Saul Bass.  I’m not sure if you can tell, but I’m a sucker for movies with a classic film sort of feel.  It was one of my favorite things about the movie Buried.

 After the credits, things go downhill quickly.

The movie centers around a little girl, Sally (Bailee Madison) coming to live with her father, (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes).

Katie Holmes in one of her most riveting roles since Evan Almighty.
 Sally is sad because her parents are divorced, and her mother forced her to go live with her father.  Sally’s father learns that she’s taking Adderall, which results in a really awkward conversation.  He seems to take offense to the idea that she needs it simply because she’s a child…as if children don’t have conditions that require medical treatment.  We don’t know whether she needs it or not because we just met her.  In this scene, and in most of the movie, the relationship between the father and the daughter is really weird, and since we don’t know either of them at this point, we don’t know whose side we should be on.

There’s another really weird scene between Sally and her dad where she refuses to eat apple pie because it has gluten in it.  Her dad gets made and demands she go to her room.  All over whether or not she should eat pie.  He gets really aggressive about it, too.  At first it’s just a suggestion, but the mention of not eating gluten pushes him over the edge and he practically tries to shove the pie down her throat.

Somehow, Katie Holmes’ character is much more reasonable and understanding than the girl’s father, but her lack of passion about anything is not a good counterbalance to his angry passion over everything his daughter does.  He seems to fly off the handle over every little hiccup between him and his daughter.  She remains fairly monotonous and bland.  She complains…a little, and then stops, because, you know, that would require acting.

The little girl begins exploring the property, and stumbles upon the glass ceiling of the hidden basement.  This scene is another one that you don’t really know where they want to go. On the one hand, the little girl in the rain boots and the coat reminds you of Coraline and her whimsical exploration.  There’s a weird sort of snow/ash looking stuff floating around, and she even finds a bare spot of grass among the autumn leaves with a ring of mushrooms around it.  Therefore, whimsical seems to be how they want to play it off.

I think they wanted to introduce this fun, whimsical little supernatural thing that the girl can be charmed by before it turns violent and tries to hurt her…but they’ve already shown it eating someone earlier.  You can’t have it both ways.  You can’t have the supernatural force eat someone in the first ten minutes of the movie—to start the movie with a bang—and then try to play it off as some charming, mischievous thing.

Anyway, after the family discovers the basement and fireplace that claimed the life of Lord Blackwood, they all go down to investigate.  The girl is drawn to the fireplace by the same whispering voices we heard at the beginning of the movie.  I would like to take the time to point out that up until this point we still haven’t seen what these creatures are...which makes them very creepy...until you see them.  Gaze into the face of eeeeeeviiiiil!!!!


For the rest of the movie, I completely lost any sense of creepiness that the monsters might have brought.  They look like the Gremlin’s scrawny cousins, and only stand about three or four inches tall.  Even if you could make the design work, they’re revealed entirely too early, which takes a lot of their menace out.  If they had been human-sized, or simply never been shown at all, then it might have worked better.  It’s the same reason the Puppet Master movies aren’t really well known for being horrifying classics--it’s hard to take an enemy seriously if you could accidentally crush them under your shoe.

Let me give you an example.  Later in the movie, after some of the “build up”, the monsters reveal themselves to the rest of the family and begin trying to steal the girl away.  They take a rope and tie her up and drag her across the room at one point.  Basically, the climax of the movie hinges on a scene similar to Gulliver encountering the Lilliputians on his travels.  TERRIFYING!!!

The creatures live in a deep dark hole in the back of the fireplace that supposedly goes all the way to the Fairy World, only these fairies are the darker fairies of the older, original stories.  I actually accept and enjoy that because, like mermaids, I know those creatures have a much darker, and less well-known origin.  However, showing the monsters so openly, and especially so early, takes the menace out of the creatures.  These creatures don’t even really have any powers or anything.  They’re basically an undiscovered life form, not particularly strong, not particularly smart, or anything.

There’s a scene where the girl goes into her room, and a teddy bear that’s not supposed to be animatronic is moving and repeatedly saying, “I love you.”  That would have been creepy...if they hadn’t gone through the pains of showing you the back side of the bear, where the creatures were standing on each other’s shoulders and physically moving the bear.  It’s like they were afraid you’d think the monsters were supernatural, or had supernatural powers, so they MADE SURE they cleared that up by showing you Rugrats-esque hijinks.

Supernatural forces like Freddy Krueger and death in the Final Destination movies, when they work, they work because they’re unstoppable.  Because these things are more than just monsters, they’re not bound by specific rules, and we can easily apply them to our own lives.  The bumps in the night in our own lives become much scarier.  It’s why Pennywise the Dancing Clown from Stephen King’s It was so terrifying for a lot of kids…until you saw the end of the movie.

In addition, by making them real creatures, they made them bound by the physical laws of our world—gravity, Newton’s Laws of Motion, etc.  At one point, Sally smashes one of them to death with a flashlight.  You even see its little guts.  So these things can die.  So you actually could kill one of them by accidentally stepping on them.  Their little bones would snap like matchsticks.

Since these creatures live in a deep, dark hole that leads deep under the earth’s surface, their weakness is light--a point that the movie makes a lot.  That makes sense.  In one scene, Katie Holmes even gives Sally an old Polaroid camera to use to protect herself with the bright flashes of light.  However, they’re clearly seen running around in the light several times in the movie.  Granted, they’re running toward the shadows to get out of the light, but they don’t really appear to be weakened or blinded or anything.  They just don’t like it.  It seems like light is a weakness to them like country music is a weakness to me--I can be around it, but I’ll usually desperately try to get away from it as quickly as possible.

So, I’ve explained why I don’t think the monsters are scary.  I’ve explained how the choices they’ve made regarding how they designed, presented, and defined the monsters’ abilities takes most of the threat out of them, and the bad writing and sloppy plotting takes the rest.  But, one thing that I haven’t focused on very much, but that really bothers me is the little girl’s family.

Remember that Sally’s mother forced her to go live with her father for a while, and that’s the source of all kinds of angst and bad feelings.  But here’s a major question that’s never answered:  Why did she send the little girl to live with her father?  It’s a question that, if addressed, is only very briefly addressed and never really brought up again. 

So, even though she and her father clearly haven’t spent a lot of time together, her mother is going to force her daughter to relocate?  Why?  Is she getting into trouble at school and her mother is hoping this relocation will help her straighten out?  Was her life with her mother so filled with excitement and drama that it was messing with her Adderall medication?  Did she just not want to take care of her anymore?  It doesn’t make any sense.  It looks even worse for her mother when Sally calls her, crying and desperate to come home, and her mother simply brushes her off and hangs up on her.

And then there’s her father.  He seems surprisingly pissed off at this turn of events--like his own child is an annoyance.  He’s much more focused on renovating his house and getting a cover story in a housing magazine.  He’s quick to fly off the handle over every little confrontation, and rarely pays the attention to his clearly troubled daughter that she needs.  The only person who appears to give a crap at all is Katie Holmes’ character, and she’s not even related to the little girl.

But what about Katie Holmes’ character?  Well, she’s pretty quick to believe the little girl.  She’s sympathetic to what appears at first to be the girl acting out because of her jacked up family.  When she stumbles on the unpublished artwork of Lord Blackwood, which features spooky pictures of the wall-dwelling imps, she immediately figures out and 100% believes that what’s wrong with Sally is real.  She’s so fired up and angry that she even has some emotions when she confronts Sally’s dad over his obsession with hosting a party instead of getting his little girl out of the house when she’s clearly in danger.  But here’s the kicker:  even though she believes that Sally is in danger and that there are supernatural creatures living in the walls that are trying to steal and eat Sally’s teeth and bones, SHE LETS HER BOYFRIEND GO AHEAD WITH THE PARTY ANYWAY...LEAVING...SALLY...THERE!!!

If there were a serial killer in the house, and you knew they were after your child, would you just shrug and say, “Meh, this can wait until tomorrow.”

The finale of the movie is the sort of bland resolution you’d expect in this type of movie. The dad gets knocked out by the monsters, the little girl is tied up and being dragged away, and Katie Holmes’ character tries to help the girl get free and winds up getting her leg broken in the process.  Once freed, Sally defeats the leader of the villains in the most climactic way possible...crushing him to death with a flashlight.  Sure, he’s only about 4 inches tall, so they couldn’t really have a climactic battle…but that just leads me back to my point of how these little things create no tension. 

The rest of the creatures are still running around like skinny rats as the father rushes in to help.  We glance back over and see Katie Holmes disappear into the fireplace as the little imps drag her into their world, claiming her as one of their own as a sort of consolation prize for not getting Sally

[But what if Tom comes looking for her?]
They return to the house some time later (A week?  A couple of days?  I’m not sure…) with a drawing for Katie Holmes.  A gust of wind carries the drawing down into the basement where we hear Katie Holmes’ voice having joined the ranks of the whispering voices, encouraging them to be patient and another child will come.  “They always come.”

Sort of like boring, crappy-cgi-heavy “scary” movies, eh?

This movie lacked any real scares, the monsters were introduced entirely too early, and the movie seems to go through pains to make sure we understand that there’s nothing supernatural going on.  It’s just little imps running around causing shenanigans.  If Coraline and Gremlins had a weird movie baby, this would be that movie.  It can’t really decide whether it wants to be whimsical or scary, and so it fails to be either.  My recommendation is to pass on this movie and go rent The Woman in Black instead.  It’s a much better haunted house movie.  Or rent Gremlins for a fun tiny, mischievous creature movie.  Or Coraline for a whimsical, little-girl-discovers-a-door-to-a-dangerous-creature-out-to-claim-her-for-their-own movie. Hell, it’s just a much better movie.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Look at Movie Marketing and JOHN CARTER

This originally began as a review for the semi-recent mega-blockbusting flop John Carter.  However, it quickly derailed into an essay on effective marketing.  Therefore, I’ve decided to split my posts.  I’ll write this as an essay on the marketing of John Carter and why I think it failed, and then I’ll write up a review at another time and post it.


Movie marketing is a tricky and incredibly difficult business.  Whenever you market a movie, you’re making a promise to the audience that the movie will be a certain way.  People like to see the same thing in a new way—we’re weird like that.  We like to be told what we’re getting into.  The less sure people are of what to expect, the less they’re willing to take a chance and drop $20 - $50 at the movies.  If you advertise a movie one way and it’s actually a completely different type of movie, you may have a large opening weekend, but your movie will quickly tank as word of mouth spreads that your movie is a stinker.

Many movies have suffered the wrath of flawed marketing.  One of the most notable comes from the horror genre.  The “slasher” film April Fool’s Day.  In April Fool’s Day, a group of teenagers go stay on an island with one of their friends.  The advertisements for this movie were a bunch of teens dying gruesomely, which was just what the horror-going audience at the time wanted—this was at the height of the slasher movie craze of the 80’s.  What happened?  Well, at the end, we learn that nobody died and that it was all just a series of pranks played on their friend.  And at the very end, they throw in one last kill…that also turns out to be a prank as well.  As you can imagine, people were pissed.

April Fool’s Day represents exactly what movie advertisements do wrong.  By misrepresenting your movie and showing things out of context, you can potentially alienate your target audience and create a strong sense of lack of confidence for the movie, as if it can’t stand on its own and needs to resort to cheap tricks to succeed. 

The rationale behind movie advertisements is to stick the best moments of the movie (or at least, some of the best) into the trailer to get us to want to see it.  However, if, like in the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Paranormal Activity 3, you put some scenes into the trailer that aren’t actually in the freakin’ movie, then we’re likely to get really angry over being lied to.  It violates the trust that the product you’re marketing to us is actually something we want.

[Imagine, corporate America selling us things we don’t need or want.]
Other products have standards they have to meet when they market them.  You can’t market a deodorant as “cancer fighting” unless it actually fights cancer.  Back in the 50’s, while filming commercials for soup, they’d put marbles in the bottoms of the bowls of soup to make the soup look like it had more noodles, but nowadays?  You’ve got to be at least partially truthful.  That’s why, even though in commercials we have guys sliding down snowy mountainsides in their trucks, we also have a disclaimer saying that it’s not actually capable of that.  Stupid?  Yes.  But at least they’re being truthful.

All of this discussion of movie marketing leads me to the actual point for this article, which is to discuss the movie John Carter, an action-adventure sci-fi, space opera movie that did rather poorly (at least, in American markets) largely, I feel, due to its bizarre treatment in marketing the movie to the public.

John Carter was a mess of marketing issues.  The movie is sort of disadvantaged because science-fiction movies don’t have the best track record in cinematic history.  Sure, Alien, The Terminator, etc., but John Carter’s story is based on a golden-age science fiction novel series—which are often very cheesy, and would appeal to a very niche audience these days.  Like B-movies.

[And that niche audience is obviously teenage girls.]
This movie was expensive, and they needed to make a lot of money to justify how much they spent.  So when marketing the movie, you try to appeal to the broadest audience out there, which is why, I assume, the advertisements look like a Michael Bay flick…because he’s incredibly popular right now for providing big, dumb action movies with lots of epic action scenes but very little in the way of depth or substance or characterization.  People love big dumb action movies—including me.  But marketing a movie as a big dumb action movie when it’s not is a huge mistake.

 For example, if people go into a movie expecting gigantic visual spectacles and wall-to-wall action…well they’re not going to get that from John Carter.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s action.  Lots of it.  It’s really cool, too.  But there aren’t a lot of scenes just for the sake of scenes. Most of the scenes in John Carter move the story forward and develop the plot.  In addition to plot, however, the movie takes time to develop its characters, creating three-dimensional people instead of cookie cutter “good-guy” and “bad-guy” stand-ins

Now, I’m not saying John Carter is a perfect movie.  But it’s much better than it’s been getting credit for.

Another issue that people probably had with the movie, at least whether they’ll go see it or not, is the “what is it?” issue.  You often know where you stand with a movie based on the title and the advertisements.

Advertisements have actually been too good at explaining “what is it?” lately, to the point that they basically summarize the entire movie for you before you go see it.  Letters to Juliet, Youth in Revolt, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and Cast Away are just a few examples of movie trailers that suffer from that particular affliction.  Strangely enough, John Carter has the opposite problem. 

Most of the John Carter trailers were so vague you had no idea what was going on.  Who is John Carter?  Why can he do these awesome things?  What are those weird aliens?  What’s this movie about, anyway?  All they showed were some big actioney looking scenes with dramatic, swelling music with no indication to what the movie was supposed to be about.  The trailers left me thoroughly unimpressed.

Not to mention, the name itself is incredibly bland.  John Carter.  It’s the name of the main character.  When I first saw a movie poster for it, I thought it was a new Terminator movie.

What the hell kind of name is “John Carter” for a movie?  Let’s try an experiment.  It’s called guess what this movie is about.

Chuck Noland

Jake Sully

Edward Lewis

Sam Baldwin

John Ferguson

I’m going to give you a moment to guess what these movies are about.

Done?  Do you have anything?  Here.  Let me help.  We’ll make it into a matching game.  I’ll provide summaries and you just match the name to the plot.  No cheating by using Professor Google.

a.   Chuck Noland

b.   Jake Sully

c.   Edward Lewis

d.   Sam Baldwin

e.   John Ferguson

______A man in a legal but hurtful business needs an escort for some social events, and hires a beautiful prostitute he meets... only to fall in love.

______A San Francisco detective suffering from acrophobia investigates the strange activities of an old friend's wife, all the while becoming dangerously obsessed with her.

______A recently-widowed man's son calls a radio talk show in an attempt to find his father a partner.

______A FedEx executive must transform himself physically and emotionally to survive a crash landing on a deserted island.

______A paraplegic Marine dispatched to the moon Pandora on a unique mission becomes torn between following his orders and protecting the world he feels is his home.

And the answers are:

Edward Lewis – the main character from Pretty Woman 

John "Scottie" Ferguson – the main character from Vertigo

Sam Baldwin – the main character from Sleepless in Seattle 

Chuck Noland – the main character from Cast Away 

Jake Sully - the main character from Avatar, and probably the only one you might have guessed.

People very rarely name their movies and/or books after the main character…at least initially.  For example, we just had a movie come out about the famous Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey, Jr.  There’s also a BBC reimagining of the show that’s awesome simply called Sherlock.  However, it’s not like when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the story he thought, “Ha!  Everyone will know this character!”  Nope.  His first book about Sherlock is called A Study in Scarlett.  Intriguing, interesting, and tells you a little bit more about the story than just naming it “Sherlock Holmes”, who would have been a no-one at the time.

Bill Murray’s modern-ish version of A Christmas Carol, entitled Scrooged, wouldn’t have worked if Scrooge hadn’t become such a large, famous name, and synonymous in our culture for a stingy, skin-flint.

I understand that they’re shooting for branding.  I mean, when we say “Harry Potter,” everyone knows what we’re talking about.  But even Harry Potter didn’t market itself solely as “Harry Potter.”  It marketed itself first as “Harry Potter and the Subtitle that Explains a Bit of What THIS Movie Will Be About.”

It’s really bizarre and frustrating to me that the original working title, John Carter of Mars wasn’t used.  At least then you have a little more of an inkling of what this movie will be about.  Most people that I talked to when I said I went to see it…had no idea what to think of it.  When I said I went to go see John Carter, their reaction was, “So…can you tell me what that was about?”

Even more frustrating is that the title of the book the movie was based on would have been an even better name for a movie.  The Princess of Mars.  I mean…c’mon!  How awesome is that??  Or, if they were still reaching for branding, why not John Carter and the Princess of Mars.  Much like the Harry Potter movies, now you have a sense of what the movie is about beyond the incredibly vague and boring name “John Carter.”

Let me show you what one of the movie posters for John Carter looked like placed next to the same poster that I’ve photoshopped with my suggested title.


Now, I’m no graphic designer, but I think the other title explains a lot more about what you’ll be getting into.

This could have been a very well received movie, possibly even a Star Wars for this generation.  Instead…it flopped.  Big time.  Instead of embracing this movie for what it is—a fun, slightly campy space opera set on mars during political turmoil between the natives—Disney tried to make this movie appeal as broadly as possible by taking out all of the potentially alienating information, and because of that, nobody knew what to think and this movie failed to find any audience at all.  I hope it does well enough in theaters—and on DVD—to warrant a sequel.  If it doesn’t, I feel this will become a cult classic and sink into the under-appreciated sci-fi movies hall of fame with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie.

Did you see John Carter?  What did you think of it?  Do you think it deserves all of the negativity, or did you enjoy it?  If you DID enjoy it, why do you think it failed?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Bonus Feature: God-awful Drawings!

Below is a bonus feature of a deleted drawing.  I was working on one of my posts and drew this picture.  It was late--like 3 AM--and I thought I had done a great job...until I woke up and looked at my drawing with clear, less-sleep-deprived eyes.  And I was horrified.  So here.  Laugh.  Enjoy.  Cringe.  Cry in the corner and wash your eyes to try to flush the horror away.  At least one of those should be an appropriate response.  One of those may have been my response as well.

Seriously.  What made me think this looked okay?  I know I'm not an amazing artist, but...really?