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.