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Entries in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark [2011] (1)

Saturday
Aug272011

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)

Nothing to Fear

Fun never lasts, kids. In the course of a week, I've watched three movies that illustrate, cosmically, why remakes are a terrible idea. For those of you who are into poor architectural analogies, watching Fright Night is like spending an evening in Paris admiring the lights from the balcony at Sacré-Cœur; Just Go With It is a drunken stumble down that cathedral's beautiful, ancient steps; Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is the death-blow of a fat, American tourist family trampling over your half-broken neck in a desperate search for "real" food.

The marketing materials for this latest travesty heavily promote the involvement of executive producer/co-writer Guillermo del Toro, but I have to wonder just how far down in the weeds he got; Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is the kind of generic, cat-in-the-closet horror movie that most self-respecting horror filmmakers would sell their souls to be disassociated with. It's as if del Toro held a contest to see who could make the slickest knock-off of one of his amazing, Spanish-language spook shows.

Lest you think I'm a snob who doesn't realize that most of the audience for this film has never seen--nor will ever see--Pan's Labyrinth or The Devil's Backbone precisely because they don't watch movies to read (sorry; no, I'm not), let me assure you that this film isn't scary even by the standards of popular American horror. I know, because it's packed with most every cliché you'd expect from a Scary House Movie. Let's review the check-list:

  • Creepy, whispering spirits/monsters
  • Eerie kid with parental abandonment issues
  • Pages and pages of black-crayon drawings of creatures/spirals/unsettling family portraits
  • Clueless adults who ignore supernatural warning signs that would shake even die-hard skeptics

Those are the first four items off the top of my head. If you've seen Gremlins, Cat's Eye, Insidious, or any other horror movie released in the last thirty years, I'm sure you can fill in the rest (bonus points for familiarity with the wonderful episode of Monsters called "The Waiting Game", which presages Don't Be Afraid of the Dark's ending--without the insulting clumsiness).

All of this annoyed ranting has kept me from discussing the plot. Were I not aiming for the illusion of professionalism, I'd just say "look at the poster". But because I love you, here goes:

Unwanted by her mother, eight-year-old Sally (Bailee Madison) moves to Rhode Island to live with her architect father, Alex (Guy Pearce), who's in the middle of restoring the palatial Blackwood mansion. Sally is wary of dad's new girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes), who serves as the project's interior designer. Despite Kim's best efforts, Sally refuses to acknowledge her as anything but lame, and spends much of her time snooping around the house and the (Pan's) labyrinth outside.

One day, Sally discovers a glass dome in the hedge-maze/garden, which looks in on a hidden basement. The crusty, old caretaker, Harris (Jack Thompson), warns the family to stay out, but Sally ventures down into the dark anyway. For some reason, she thinks that the malevolent voices coming out of the ash chute are friendly--maybe because they invite her to come and play with the other children at the bottom of the smelly hole in which they're trapped. She partially opens the chute door, and an army of gray, rat-looking creatures with white-eyed zombie faces come scampering into the house.

It's not until after the monsters attack Harris that Sally realizes their sinister intentions, but once everyone's on the same page, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark becomes a paint-by-numbers child-in-peril movie. The only thing that sets it apart from films of its kind is the utter carelessness with which the filmmakers handle the creatures' back-story.

Movies like this live or die by their mythology. Think of the great horror icons: Freddy Krueger, Leatherface, Pinhead, Jason Voorhees. They each have rich histories that make sense and inform their killing sprees. Sure, many of the later sequels become watered down and neglect storytelling altogether, but the foundations stand strong in the audience's subconscious. Del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins tease us with pockets of mythology that, when pieced together, make absolutely no sense.

Apparently, these monsters are a cross-breed of fairies and demons who've been around since before mankind. Whenever they're awakened by humans, they must kill at least one person in order to replenish their ranks. But a few hundred years ago, they entered into negotiations with one of the popes--resulting in a truce by which they leave silver coins under pillows in exchange for human teeth. The monsters have repeatedly broken this pact by kidnapping kids and holding them hostage for teeth. Though, like Captain Kirk dumping Khan and his race of supermen on Ceti Alpha Five, the Vatican never bothered to follow up.

This convoluted premise leaves the door wide open for critical questions, of which I'll pose only three:

1. Are there other houses across the planet with these monsters living in them?

3. If not, why Rhode Island?

2. Did the pope travel to Rhode Island for these troll truce talks, or did he send a proxy?

These aren't nit-picks; the movie is just that poorly conceived. Instead of coming up with something original (I realize this is a remake of a 1973 TV movie, but that should give the creators more leeway, not less), comic-book-artist-turned-first-time-director Troy Nixey throws a lot of quick-cut, poorly lit CG monster imagery at the screen and cranks up the clanging-pots noises on the soundtrack. There is nothing visually creepy in the entire film, and if you were to watch it at home at a reasonable volume, I guarantee you'd not only be bored to tears, you'd probably wonder what about this story was worth re-telling.

The only positive thing I can say about Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is that the cast is great up until the point when they're called up on to be uniformly dumb (about twenty minutes in). I really liked the strained family dynamic and Madison made me forget that I'd just been irritated by her performance in Just Go With It the day before. Pearce can do no wrong--except, apparently, in his choice of roles. And Holmes reminded me of just how much I've missed her since she became Mrs. Tom Cruise (I'm one of three people on the planet who thought she was the second-best thing in Batman Begins). None of the performers, though, can save the material, which falls apart once we figure out that this is just another stupid monster movie.

There's no reason to see this film. It is a cheap copy of the executive producer's best work and the calling card of a young director who reeeally wants to work in television (graveyard shift basic cable, to be exact). The most frightening thing about Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is that it may end up the pop cornerstone for a generation of kids who wouldn't know a great horror movie if it bit them in the ankle. Thoughts like that keep me up at night.