Friday, August 26, 2011

Review: "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark"

Bailee Madison in "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark"

Many folks my age and a little younger have fond memories of being scared to death by the 1973 TV movie starring Kim Darby and Jim Hutton as a couple named Sally and Alex Farnham who inherit a Victorian mansion from her grandfather, only to find they aren't quite as alone as they think. But even at 12, I was a jaded horror fan and thought the creatures, when they were finally revealed, were goofy. In the 2011 remake, co-written and produced by Guillermo del Toro, the creatures aren't goofy, but they have problems of their own. But I'll get to that in  a minute.

In the new version, Sally is Alex's daughter (Bailee Madison), who comes to live with him and his girlfriend Kim (in a nod to the original's star) in a creepy Gothic mansion they are restoring in Rhode Island. While exploring the garden, Sally finds the window to a basement no one knew existed and Alex (Guy Pearce) is soon knocking down a wall that leads to a very creepy door and the very creepy basement, against the advice of the handyman, Mr. Harris. The studio of the house's original owner - a famous wildlife painter who disappeared a few days after his young son - the basement is a cobwebby mess and features a bolted shut ash pit, to which Sally is immediately drawn. All this after a particularly gruesome prologue that shows just how the painter and his son disappeared all those years ago.

Sally is lonely and unhappy at having been uprooted from her mother in L.A. She hates Kim (Katie Holmes), hates the house and hates Rhode Island. But when mysterious voices whisper her name and say they'll play with her if she'll let them out, Sally opens the grate (she's apparently a very strong little girl) and unleashes a horde of tiny creatures who really want to drag her down into the grate and (ready?) eat her teeth! In the original, the creatures' existence is never explained. Del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins (Mimic, del Toro's English-language directorial debut) have contrived a background for the little creeps that involves fairy folk, a pact with an ancient Pope and the origins of the Tooth Fairy myth. The contrivance is completely unnecessary and serves only as the basis for the equally unnecessary (and hard to watch) prologue. Of course, when the creatures prove to be nasty, no one believes Sally's protestations. Afterall, she's a 'problem' child who takes Adderall and has a history of running away.

Del Toro originally wanted to direct this film, but felt it was too close in theme to Pan's Labyrinth, so he chose to produce instead, bringing in first-time feature director Troy Nixey. But del Toro's hands are all over the movie, especially in the garden scenes and the score by Marco Beltrami (Mimic; Hellboy; Blade II). Nixey's direction is workmanlike at best, relying too heavily on jolts and surprises instead of relying on the atmospheric creepiness inherent in the Gothic-style setting. Oh, there's atmosphere, just not enough of it. And as for the aforementioned little creeps? Most of the scares in the original came from not seeing the little monsters until the end. Nixey brings them out into the light (so too speak) far too soon and the CGI rat-like humanoids lose their effectiveness after the first time we get a good look at them. 

Pearce (Memento) and Holmes (Batman Begins) have zero chemistry and I didn't for a moment believe that they were actually a couple. It doesn't help that Pearce is so much better an actor. Of course, the movie is really about Sally, and Ms Madison ("Wizards of Waverly Place") is actually quite good as Sally. What I did believe was the relationship she develops with Kim, which starts out cold but grows into one of trust, friendship and ultimately, love. 

Don't get me wrong, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark isn't a bad movie. It's a little predictable (especially of you know the original) and a bit draggy in the middle. Genre fans should like it, though I doubt they'll love it, especially given its relatively low body count. Fans of the original are likely to be disappointed, though that's probably because they saw and were scared by it as children. There are plenty of nods to the original, though, including the famous Polaroid flash scene near the end. Don't Be Afraid... was originally scheduled for release last year, but got delayed in the mess following Disney's sale of Miramax. ** (Two out of Four Stars).

And here's the trailer for the 1973 original:

More, anon.

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