CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (2011)
By L.L. Soares and John Harvey
(THE SCENE: A Rhode Island mansion in the middle of nowhere. L.L. SOARES walks to the front door and knocks loudly. JOHN HARVEY pulls open the door to find LS smoking a cigarette and carrying a large tank on his shoulder that has a skull and crossbones on it. LS notices dozens of small homunculus-like troll creatures crawling all over Harvey. One is passed out on top of his head, though he seems not to notice.)
LS: You the man of the house?
JH: I guess so. Apparently, I can’t live anywhere except creepy old houses in Rhode Island. What’s with the big tank o’ poison?
LS: I’m the exterminator. I came here to get rid of your pests. Errr … those pests.
JH: Oh these little guys? Nah. They’re fine as long as you keep them liquored up. They’ll even clean up a bit if you get them the good stuff. Would you rather review the new movie DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK?
LS: Well, if I’m not going to be doing an exterminating today, I guess so.
JH: Excellent! Come on in.
(LS and JH walk into an incredibly ornate library with huge leather chairs.)
LS: Holy Jeez! Are we reviewing a movie or kicking off an episode Masterpiece Theater?
JH: Har-dee-har. Make with the reviewing already.
LS: DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is being promoted as the new Guillermo Del Toro movie, but he just produced it and co-wrote the script. The film was directed by newcomer Troy Nixey, whose only previous credit is a short film called Latchkey Lament (2007), which obviously impressed Del Toro enough for him to hire the guy to direct this movie.
JH: True, but it’s got Del Toro’s fingerprints all over it. Ranging from the look and feel to the pacing and characterization, I’d say that Del Toro spent a fair amount of time looking over Nixey’s shoulder. Anyway, what’s it about?
(One of the little trolls brings LS a Tecate beer.)
LS: Hey! Thanks little guy. (Pops the can open) I guess you’re not so bad after all. Well, the movie kicks off with a sour-faced little girl named Sally (Bailee Madison) going to live with her father Alex (Guy Pearce—who you might remember from MEMENTO ) at his new mansion. Alex, an architect and restorationist, has sunk all of his money into remodeling a big old house for resale and to restart his career. And it is a pretty amazing-looking joint. Alex is accompanied by his interior decorator/girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes, who you might know as Mrs. Tom Cruise, but she’s also a decent actress with movies like BATMAN BEGINS  to her credit. I remember her back when she was Joey on DAWSON’S CREEK [1998 – 2003]). Bailee is a sad little girl who takes anti-depressants and feels like her mother is punishing her by sending her to live with her dad. Obviously, this kid didn’t take the divorce very well. Alex tries to cheer Sally up, but she’s a hard nut to crack, and Kim is sure that Sally hates her. So much for a fresh start.
JH: I believe that Sally’s mom really is punishing her, because Guy Pearce plays an incredibly monotone, detached, and distracted dad. Honestly, this kid did not hit the jackpot in the parents department. This plays up Del Toro’s common use of a fairytale story structure…
LS: Too common, if you ask me.
JH: …where parents are almost placeholders rather than developed characters. Whereas, Katie Holmes performance is both warm and believable at the same time. I think that she did the best acting in is movie.
LS: I agree with most of what you just said, pardner. But more on that later.
(The little creatures serve LL and JH finger foods while wearing tiny butler outfits.)
LS: Honestly, you have the best infestation EV-ER! Anyway, I thought Bailee Madison was an interesting choice to play Sally. Usually, you’d see a cute kid in this kind of role, but Bailee kind of looks like she’s always sucking on a lemon. And in some scenes, she looked to me an awful lot like a miniature version of Katie Holmes—maybe it was the hair—which I found kind of creepy.
JH: Yeah. I didn’t see the resemblance. But I agree that it was an interesting and good choice to use a child actor that wasn’t a Dakota Fanning knock-off. That said, I also thought that she was a bit dismal throughout the movie. It’s hard to get attached to a kid that’s so totally emo.
LS: Okay, so Sally is off to a rocky start. Add to this a strange hidden basement of the house that was being kept a secret from Alex (which Sally finds). It turns out to be where a famous nature painter named Blackwood did his final work (he was one of the house’s former owners). They find his workspace and an odd furnace-like contraption that Alex says is most likely an ash pit.
The boss of the workmen renovating the house, Mr. Harris (Jack Thompson), is clearly upset that they found the basement, and he knows something he’s not telling them (because his grandfather was the house’s caretaker way back when). Meanwhile, Sally starts to hear strange, whispery voices calling to her. She’s very curious about the basement (the only interesting thing about the house she’s found since she got there) and goes down there whenever she can sneak away from the adults. At one point, she brings a wrench to help unlock the furnace door and let out the unseen creatures who have been calling to her.
(One of the little trolls climbs up on LL’s shoulder with a Q-Tip and an intent interest in LL’s ear. LL pokes it in the chest.)
LS: Right. There’s such a thing as too much of a good thing. Keep the booze and food coming. I’ll take care of my personal hygiene. And I don’t want to see any of you in the bathroom with me. Got it?
(The little troll sighs deeply and leaves.)
JH: I’d like to interject just to say that I found it totally ridiculous that Sally would actively try to release and befriend these creatures, even before she’s laid eyes on them. No matter how lonely I am, if I was a kid and heard those terrifying hissing voices calling my name from under my bed, I’d exit that house on a jet-stream of feces. I get it; it’s a movie. But I still think that characters need to act logically within their made-up world.
LS: The thing is—we’re supposed to think Sally is a moody but smart kid. I guess they telegraph that by making her so damn serious all the time. And you’re right, a lot of what she does isn’t all that smart.
Anyway, that’s when things get a bit hairy. Harris tries to lock the creatures up again, but they’ll have none of it, and soon they have free reign of the house. Their only weakness is light. They don’t come out in the daytime and they scream when bright lights are flashed on them. Needless to say, Sally has some very good reasons to be afraid of the dark, as these odd creatures, that at first said they want to be her friend, reveal their true nature. What they really want to do is capture Sally and drag her back down into their tunnels, where (we’re told) they love to eat things like “children’s teeth and children’s bones.” (Which contradicts the other theories presented in the film: 1) that the creatures must kill one person every time they are set free, and 2) they want to turn a human into one of them. Make up your minds already!)
When Sally tries to tell her father and Kim about these menacing little gnomes, they don’t believe her and think she’s just acting out. But as the movie develops, they begin to change their minds…..
(JH looks down to see some of the creatures giving LL an pedicure and foot massage.)
JH: Didn’t you have personal space issues …
LS: Yeah, but this is awesome. Besides, they’re the only things that will get close to my feet.
(JH notices that all the little homunculi have clothespins on their noses.)
JH: I’m going to have to buy a case of Black Label to make up for this.
LS: I’ll chip in! Anyway, I had a lot of problems with DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK. First off, I didn’t like Sally and found it difficult to care much about this mopey little brat. Although, I will admit that she grew on me a bit as the movie went on, I never was totally won over by her as the main character.
JH: True, but by the time I started warming up to Sally. The movie had already stopped being scary. The first 30 minutes of this movie is genuinely creepy and tense. The train comes off the tracks the moment that they show the creatures. Who, to me, looked like they came off of a special effects demo reel. DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is a prime example of a movie where not showing bogey man would have been the better choice.
LS: You’ve got that right. Also, there is a scene where the work foreman, Harris, is viciously attacked by the monsters (when he tries to lock them up again). He staggers upstairs badly hurt, bleeding, with sharp objects sticking out of him, and collapses on the floor. Alex then proceeds to call this incident “Harris’s accident.” All in all, they don’t seem to take his brutal injuries seriously. You would think that would make them consider getting the hell out of this place, but nobody seems to be interested in what happened to the man and they just dismiss it, which I found very strange.
(JH nods emphatically while several little creatures give him a shoulder rub.)
JH: Oh, yeah, that’s the stuff! Right, back on topic. That was the other plot point where I threw down the bull#$%& flag. Apparently, they believed that Harris fell down on his tools. All of his tools. And then rolled around on them like a dog on roadkill, and then threw himself down a flight of stairs for good measure … by accident. That whole sequence pulled me out of the story entirely.
LS: It was stupid with a capital “S.” I also wondered why nobody else saw/heard the creatures. I mean, I know that they wouldn’t talk when anyone else was around, but there are several scenes where someone will enter a room and the creatures will scatter and yet nobody has a clue. You’d think someone would hear them scurrying about. Or see them jumping around quickly. But no one does.
In particular is a scene where the creatures attack Sally while she is taking a bath. People come to her rescue, and they clearly heard the commotion inside and must have seen small figures fleeing when they turned the light on – but no, they don’t believe that anyone or anything else was in there with Sally.
LITTLE CREATURE (clears its throat): Ahem. Listen up, bub. A) we’re magical, B) in old homes you hear a bunch of odd little noises that can’t be explained. You write them off after a while. I think you’re being a bit hypercritical.
LS: Hey you little bastard! Who’s reviewing this movie, you or me? Go get yourself another Scotch and make me a hamburger.
(The little guy rolls his eyes and stalks off.)
LS: Besides, I hardly think a hundred little creatures jumping around and tearing down shower curtains would sound like typical “odd little noises.” Oh yeah, and Sally was screaming throughout.
Also, if Sally is so damn smart for her age, why didn’t she just tell her father that she saw rats in the house, instead of telling him all about creatures trying to talk to her and grab her, which she knows he won’t believe. If she’d changed the truth a bit and said it was rats, not only would they have believed her, but maybe they would have gotten someone like an exterminator to come and take care of the damn things. (LS taps the poison tank that is resting beside his chair). And maybe Alex and Kim would have considered moving to a hotel room during the rest of the renovations if they thought the house was infested with vermin.
Another big gripe of mine is a certain scene where someone is dragged down into the furnace and the tunnels below the building. I won’t say who. But I will say I found it very strange that the survivors merely picked up and left after that. Not trying to get the person back and not calling the authorities to bring help to get the person out. You’d think if you really loved someone you’d try your best to get them back and not just leave them down in a pit with a bunch of horrid little monsters.
JH: I cared less about your first two points there, but I did have issues with the third. It did seem like a cold response from characters who supposedly loved each other quite a lot. That said, I’ll give the movie a modicum of credit for providing an ending that isn’t all rainbows and lollipops. Which happens too often in American (or Americanized) horror films.
LS: DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is actually a remake of an old ABC TV-movie from 1973. In that version, it was about a young couple who move into the house and the creatures haunt the wife, played by Kim Darby. That movie was actually kind of surreal and worked because nothing was really explained and it all seemed very weird and otherworldly. In that version, the monsters were strange little bald-headed men with furry bodies. Odd-looking things that really gave you the creeps. We never found out what they were or why they wanted Darby. But that was part of what made it so cool.
JH: I don’t think I ever watched the original. If I did, I’ve forgotten about it. So, this was a new movie to me, not a remake.
LS: Do yourself a favor and check out the original.
The new version tries to explain things a bit more, with tales about ancient races that lived before mankind and allusions to the writings of Arthur Machen. The movie begins with a flashback to the painter Blackwood and his own demise at the hands of the beasties in the house decades before. None of this was in the original version, and it tries too hard to flesh out something that is scarier if it’s not explained.
Also, in this new version, the creatures are kind of a cross between monkeys and rats, as they scurry about the place with twisted, rat-like bodies and human-looking hands. They’re obviously CGI creations and while there are few scenes where they’re effective, they look too ordinary for lack of a better word. Despite their monstrous faces, they look too much like rodents or the kind of fast-moving critters you’d expect to infest an old house. In other words, they lack the strange magic of the original creatures. Sure, in the original movie it was just little men in costumes, but it really did seem to work a lot better. I just didn’t find the monsters in this movie all that compelling, and in too many scenes they are so obviously just CGI cartoons jumping around. Say what you will about old fashioned latex and make-up, but I think old school effects were a lot creepier.
JH: I didn’t mind that they tried to explain things more. I thought the back story made it a little more interesting and added depth. But I’m going to stick to my argument that they became far less scary once they appeared on camera. It didn’t matter what they looked like.
LS: Well, I see it as a need to over-explain creatures that should be a complete mystery – DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK reminded me of American remakes of Japanese horror films like THE RING (2002) and THE GRUDGE (2004) that also attempted to over-explain things that should have been left to the imagination. As if American audiences need everything spoon-fed to them and can’t appreciate the creepiness of unsolved mysteries. Hey – maybe they have a point there!
JH: There’s an argument out there that standard American audiences (meaning not horror geek fans), actually don’t like to be genuinely scared or disturbed during a movie. They like to jump out of their seats every so often, but that’s about it. I have friends who say they love horror films, but can’t watch SESSION 9 (2001) when I recommend it to them. I think there’s some truth to that theory, which is unfortunate.
LS: Really? That’s kind of sad.
In this movie, the acting is good enough. Bailee Madison makes the Sally character believable enough. She does seem like a real kid. I just didn’t like her all that much. Guy Pearce is given thankless role as the father—who has to be the voice of reason throughout, and therefore the most boring character. Strangely, the best one in the movie, and the one I found myself rooting for the most was Katie Holmes as Kim. I sympathized with her attempts to befriend Sally, and she was the first one to actually start to believe what Sally was talking about, and slowly becomes her protector.
The direction is serviceable. Nixey does a decent enough job with his first feature film, but I had a lot of problems with the script by Guillermo Del Toro and Matthew Robbins (based on the original teleplay by Nigel McKeand). Another reason why I thought the original was so interesting is because it was about adult characters. In this remake, Del Toro and Robbins immediately change the dynamics of the story by making a child the protagonist, and I just didn’t find the story as interesting. Sure, kids are afraid of the dark, and this movie gives them a reason to be. But so have a hundred other movies before this one. I also thought that the fact that a little girl was the lead drew comparisons between this movie and Del Toro’s much superior PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006), and the comparisons don’t do DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK any favors. It just emphasizes how much weaker the script is for DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK.
You said before that Del Toro has a tendency to tell his stories like fairy tales and the adults aren’t as important to the story. Well, this is the first time in a Del Toro-written film where I found myself getting really tired of this “lonely child” perspective. In his own, more personal films like PAN and CHRONOS (1993), Del Toro made it work. But here, his often-used themes started to feel like clichés. And it’s not just because Troy Nixey directed this one. Like you said, it has Del Toro’s “fingerprints all over it.”
JH: For me, the script required too many leaps of faith over too-wide plot holes. That plus the non-scary nature of the creatures made for a very ho-hum film after the 30-minute mark.
LS: Yeah. This movie had a lot of potential, and adapted an interesting story. But I don’t think the new version improved on the original in any way. I give it one and a half knives. And most of that is for Katie Holmes, who played the only character I gave a damn about.
JH: I wanted to like it more, because I generally enjoy anything that has Del Toro’s stamp on it. But I’m giving this two knives. Too bad.
LS: I’m a Del Toro fan, too, but this movie just didn’t do it for me.
I’d also like to note that DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK was supposed to be released last year, but it stayed on the shelf while Disney sold the movie’s studio, Miramax. It’s funny, I’ve been seeing the trailer for this movie for a long time now—since they were originally planning to release it—and I thought the trailer was very effective. Pretty cool, in fact. It’s too bad that the movie didn’t live up to it.
(JH sits up and claps his hands)
JH: You know what? I’m in the mood for musical theater. What can you guys do for us?
(Several of the small creatures walk out onto a table dressed like the Family Von Trapp. They look less than thrilled.)
JH: I think they’d be more enthusiastic if they weren’t being filmed.
LS (to camera): Yeah, the review’s over. You can go now.
(Shoves hand to push lens away as we FADE TO BLACK)
© Copyright 2011 by L.L. Soares & John D. Harvey
L.L. Soares gave DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK – one and a half knives
John Harvey gave DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK – two knives.