Sunday, October 13, 2013

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

I was in the mood to to watch/mock a bad horror movie last night, and Don't Be Afraid of the Dark seemed like a pretty good option.  It's a Katie Holmes vehicle, a remake, it has a first-time director, and a pretty awful title.  It should be a shoe-in for a good drunken time, but it had a few surprises in store for me.  First of all, the star of this movie is actually a little girl.  It's rarely as much fun to brutally ridicule children as much as it is terrible adult actors with lopsided faces.  Besides, I think we can all agree that children are creepy.  Second of all, Guillermo Del Toro co-produced and co-wrote Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, which implies a certain degree of creativity.  So what's it to be?  A spectacular crap-fest, or a creative mood piece?

Sally () is in the never-enviable position of being the young child being shuttled between self-absorbed divorced parents.  Her mother has sent Sally to visit her dad, Alex (), while he renovates a dilapidated New England mansion.  And by "visit," I of course mean "live forever with" --- surprise!  Alex isn't a very attentive parent, and his interest in Sally's happiness can best be described as "nonexistent."
Alex, envisioning his daughter's future bedroom
Making things even better for Sally, her dad is dating his interior designed, Kim (), who feels very uncomfortable acting as a fill-in mother.  But that's all okay, because they both more or less ignore her most of the time, which allows Sally to investigate the massive building and its surrounding land.
...which apparently includes parts of Narnia
 While exploring, Sally discovers something in part of the overgrown garden.  It is a skylight for the basement, which Alex and Kim had no idea existed.  You see, the basement had been hidden by someone many years ago, when they put up a wall in front of the basement door.  Why would anyone want to do such a thing?
Because they didn't want to see children going through what appears to be a doorway to Hell?
Well, when Sally goes down to the ancient basement, she hears her name being whispered.  Some thing --- or things --- that sound like they have emphysema keep whispering for her to play with them.  Their actual words are, "We're your friends.  Come down to the basement and play with us."  While that may ring all sorts of alarm bells in a reasonable person's head, Sally is an eight-year-old and, therefore, capable of an entirely different type of stupidity.  Soon enough, the creatures are terrorizing Sally, and she can't get any adult to believe that there are evil faeries hunting her in the darkness.
Try shouting "I don't believe in faeries!"  It would kill Tinkerbell.
And that is their biggest weakness: these creatures are sensitive to bright lights.  But how hard is it to plunge an isolated old mansion into darkness?  And what do they want when they finally get their tiny paws on Sally?  They want to feast on her teeth.
Oh relax.  You have another set to look forward to.

I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the acting in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark did a solid job in the lead role.  For child actors in horror movies, there is a fine line between acting scared and being extremely annoying, but Madison never really approached anything obnoxious.  I thought she was pretty believable, even when making extremely poor choices.  
Example: this is where she went potty
She wasn't a fantastic lead, but I'll take solid acting over overacting any day, especially with children.  Aside from her lopsided smile, was also pretty good as the most reasonable character in the movie.  Her character was pretty bland, but I didn't mind watching her in this movie, which is as much as I am capable of complimenting her.  was capable as the father, in that I think he played the part that the script asked for, but his character was just awful.  It's not just that he was an offensively bad (although, to be fair, not evil) father figure; he has a complete 180 toward the end of the movie, and it just doesn't work.   

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark was the first (and so far, only) directorial effort by .  For a first effort, Nixey had an uphill battle.  This is, at its core, a haunted house movie, which means it relies heavily on atmosphere and suspense --- two things that even veteran directors have trouble with. There are moments where he succeeds; the smaller-scale scares that leave something to the imagination are actually pretty good.
Two words: creepy hands
However, the script calls for a lot less mystery than I think this plot calls for.  For being a movie about creatures in the dark, the audience gets to see an awful lot of the creatures in question.  The special effects on these creatures are pretty good, but that's beside the point.  If this isn't supposed to be a creature feature --- and it definitely isn't --- then why do we see so much of the things that are supposed to be scaring us in the dark?  
"Bippity boppity bitch!"
That's a choice that I disagree with, but it doesn't make for a bad film.  What dumbs this picture down a few notches is its inconsistency with regards to how it treats light.  The sensitivity the devil faeries have for light ranges the gamut, from absolutely requiring deep, dark shadows to being able to hang out at a well-lit party (sitting in a potted plant, but still...).  The cinematography doesn't help any.  This should be a very, very dark film, from a lighting perspective.  It's called Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, but whenever the lights go out, it looks like a spotlight is shining in from outside.  And once Katie Holmes' character buys into this whole shadow faery thing, she doesn't think to go out and buy a bunch of lamps or flashlights or anything?  That's just stupid.  The film's consistency and logic, as well as its look and feel, are definitely things the director is responsible for.  I think Nixey had some good instincts in his first directorial effort, but some of the basics are lacking.

As a horror movie, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark doesn't have a lot of what genre fans typically look for in an R-rated flick.  There is a bit of gruesome violence at the beginning of the movie; the prologue was pretty cool and even had me cringing a little.  For the rest of the movie, though, there isn't much violence or gore to speak of.  If you were looking for gratuitous nudity, I would like to point out that the heroine is a child, so...please stop.  
This is not sexy
Still, this is more of a suspense-type horror, so sex and violence were never strong possibilities.  Unfortunately, the suspense isn't too effective.  It has creepy moments, especially in the first half, but the second half is full of mind-numbing stupidity.  None of the characters, the monsters included, do anything even remotely logical.  Here's just a small example of how frustrating this script is: little Sally has just fought off some faeries and has taken some pictures of them and has even crushed one; when her father dismisses her claims as an overactive imagination, she tries to find a photo to prove her case instead of the faery corpse she left in the damned bookcase.  That's not the dumbest moment in this movie, mind you --- it's just one of the easiest to explain.  When you add all that up, this isn't a very good horror movie.  The acting of Bailee Madison goes a long way toward making this easier to watch, but it doesn't make up for a dumb script.  If this was PG or PG-13, I would be a little more forgiving, but being rated R and missing out on anything on my horror checklist AND being stupid is just too much to overlook.  It's not as bad as I thought a Katie Holmes movie would be, but it is definitely not very good.

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