Thursday, August 18, 2011

Review: Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a rarity in that it’s the first time since The Ring 2002 that I’ve gone to see a remake of a film I haven’t seen. Somehow the original 1973 TV movie that I’ve heard so much about and I haven’t crossed paths. Therefore, this will be the first, and probably last, time you will read a review of a remake on this blog where I have no frame of reference. From talking to people who have seen both, it seems that it’s fairly close in story and has some interesting nods to the original. All I knew about it going in was that Guillermo Del Toro had a hand in it. I hadn’t even seen the trailer, so the flick is all I have to go on. Therefore if you’re looking for how the flick stacks up against the original, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Sally’s mother has sent her to live with her father Alex and Kim, his girlfriend. They are staying in and restoring a beautiful old gothic mansion that once belonged to renowned painter Emerson Blackwood. Blackwood became obsessed with painting grotesque, evil fairies after the disappearance of his son. He then mysteriously disappeared. When Sally discovers a hidden basement in the house, she unwittingly opens a door for the house’s deep, dark secret, the creatures that live beneath it, to enter. Can she convince the adults that these tiny terrors aren’t just in her imagination before it’s too late?

This movie is all about old-fashioned horror, but in a more “dark fantasy” way. It almost has the feeling of a kid’s movie, but with the scares and intensity kicked up. It definitely has that twisted fairy tale feeling that permeates the vast majority of the films that Guillermo Del Toro is involved with. That’s partially due to the fact that the story is basically told from Sally’s point of view. Remember back in the late 70’s and early 80’s when Disney started making slightly darker live action flicks like Watcher in the Woods, Candleshoe, and Something Wicked This Way comes? That’s exactly what it reminded me of. It had the feel of one of those, just WAY meaner and without the happy ending. I don’t want to give anything away, but no, everyone does not live happily ever after. Think of it this way, remember when you were a kid and someone told you a scary story? Your imagination ran wild. Everything was lush, simple but detailed, and dreamlike, and you were scared shitless. This is like that childhood story that gave you nightmares, but designed to work for grown ups. The best part is…it succeeds.

Like Insidious earlier in the year, DBAOTD doesn’t rely on cheap camera tricks, music video editing, and constant jump scares for its fear. It’s a throwback to the days of horror based on atmosphere. Despite what mainstream, and therefore squeamish, reviewers might try to tell you, there is no gruesome violence in this movie. There is violence, some of it rather squirm-inducing, but it’s not graphic. I respect a movie that doesn’t need a lot of violence and gore to be intense. Woah, hold on. Don’t get me wrong, I love gore. LOVE IT! Everybody knows that I’m a gorehound. They won’t come and see me in this dive. (Anyone?) Atmospheric horror is great too, though. Some movies go with the gore because that’s the style of horror they want to do, and others gore it up because they can’t manage to create atmosphere or suspense. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark didn’t go there because it didn’t need to. This movie’s potent combination of children’s story feel, gothic horror tropes, monster movie thrills, and genuine suspense creates a unique atmosphere that’s honestly unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time. Doing something different is a rarity in horror these days, and I love that this film went that way.

Del Toro may not have directed (he co-wrote and co-produced) this movie, but just like The Orphanage, which he also produced, his distinctive style is all over this flick, from the “tooth fairy” motif (Hellboy 2) to the child protagonist exploring an old, creepy house (Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labrynth). First time feature director Troy Nixey does a very good job behind the camera. Being a comic artist, he definitely has a knack for compelling visuals. He also shows a lot of skill when it comes to creating suspense. The scene in the trailer when Sally is looking under her sheets for one of the little creatures plays out perfectly in the film. They hold off the payoff scare for just long enough to let it ripen, but not so long that the effect is lessened. I’m a fan of Del Toro, and his style is always welcome, but his fingerprint on the film makes it a little hard to tell how much of the good stuff here is him and how much is Nixey. It will be interesting to see what Troy comes up with on his own. Consider me intrigued.

Guy Pearce is probably the least impressive of the three leads. It’s not that he’s bad, because he isn’t. His character is very one note though, and doesn’t really grow or change much, so he didn’t have a whole lot to work with. Katie Holmes does a good job, proving that she can pull out a good performance when the situation calls for it. Leah informed me that she was much better in this than she was on The Kennedys, which was the last thing she saw her in. On a side note, Katie used to be really hot. Now she looks like an x-ray with hair. I’ll be glad when anorexia goes out of style and we can get our buxom Hollywood hotties back. Anyway, the best of the three leads is 11 year old Bailee Madison. This girl can emote and be believable. Sure, all kid actors can turn on the waterworks, they learn to do that to manipulate mom and dad. She runs a full gambit of emotion here, some very subtle. Very impressive for a child actress. The other performance that stood out to me was Jack Thompson as Harris, the handyman who knows the secret of the house. Going back to the children’s movie thing, he’s the stock “gruff and scary adult who turns out to be just trying to look out for the kid” character.

There is only one thing that didn’t work for me in this movie. Ironically, it’s one of the things that worked well also. I’m speaking of the monsters. The voices sound great. It’s a collective ethereal whispering, and it’s pretty damn scary. That definitely worked for me. Visually, for the first half of the movie the monsters are only glimpsed in shadows. They are dark little shapes skittering around with only their glowing eyes or a quick flash of a hand visible. They are incredibly creepy and effective that way. If they had kept it at that, this movie might have been an instant classic. The problem is, they decided to show them. How many times do I have to say it? CGI characters aren’t scary because they don’t look real. A completely CGI character hasn’t been realistic enough not to take me out of the story since Jurassic Park. These little guys look like tiny Gollums. I expected them to start talking about “their precious” any minute. They should have left them barely glimpsed, because when they decide to give the critters some screen time, they just don’t cut it. I found myself wanting to be swept back into the well-told story, but I was too busy laughing at the inane CGI. It’s a shame too. If they had decided not to show them in detail, the creatures actually would have been one of the movie’s strengths. Had I seen the trailer, I would have known that. Since I hadn’t, it was the film’s only disappointment.

One thing about this movie I absolutely do not understand is why it was rated R. This is a PG-13 movie if I ever saw one. That’s not a knock on it at all. In fact, Del Toro says that he designed it for that rating. There is minimal gore, not really any language to speak of, but the MPAA said that their R rating was "not negotiable because of pervasive scariness." Pervasive scariness? Are you f**king kidding me? Whatever. Up yours MPAA. Buncha jackasses. Anyway, this “pervasive scariness” that in no way makes this an R movie is also what makes it a good movie. For the most part, it’s visually stunning and beautiful to look at, the acting is solid, the pacing is perfect, and the suspense is effective. It’s a solid combination of old school gothic horror, dark kid’s story, and creature feature. Bad CGI monsters and all, it’s still good enough to get two severed thumbs up. Nathan says check it out.


Dr. Jimmy Terror said...

Definitely will. glad to hear it's worth the watch!

Cash Wampum said...

This doesn't hit the theatre until next week up here!! What the hell!? I haven't watched the original either but I'll be checking this out. Nice work Nate. Tonight its Fright Night with my wife and the world famous Brian Stewart. I think we'll be rolling the camera right afterwards to get our initial reaction.

SonOfCelluloid said...

It doesn't hit theaters until next week here either. I managed to score passes to an advance screening.

Master_Gio said...

i was on the fnce about seeing it but now i will. Great review! :D

Anonymous said...

really enjoyed this one!! it felt like the old creepy Disney films that used to come out in the 70s & 80s. was skeptical about Katie Holmes' performance before i saw it (cause i was so unsatisfied with her 'The Kennedy's' performance), but she did a fantasitc job :) i agree with Son of Celluloid . . . check this one out!!

Slowdeath77 said...

Your award

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