Well, here we are folks. It’s that moviegoing time of the year when it’s too late for summer blockbusters and too early to roll out the awards contenders. I’ve heard the season called “Craptember,” and I suppose there are less accurate titles. Except for a couple of arthouse pics, all the new releases this weekend have been getting mixed-to-negative reviews. But even despite its tepid critical reception, it was inevitable that I’d end up seeing Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.
Partly, this is because the movie was associate-produced by Nick Nunziata, perhaps best known as the founder of CHUD. I’ve long been a fan of that site, going there on a daily basis for movie news, reviews, box office predictions/analyses, and to repost several of my blog entries (yes, including this one). Also, Nick is the founder and chief editor of GUY.Com, which technically makes him my boss. So, there’s my full disclosure.
My other big reason for seeing this was Guillermo del Toro, who exec-produced, co-wrote, and tirelessly championed this picture. GDT brings a lot of credibility to this picture, having established himself as a fantasy/horror master with such films as The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, and the Hellboy movies. Still, though his fingerprints are all over this picture, it must be remembered that the marvelous Mexican maestro of monsters and the macabre didn’t direct it. No, that job fell to Troy Nixey, here making his feature debut after directing whatever the hell this is.
I was really looking forward to enjoying this picture, and the prologue was indeed very impressive. The production design was rock-solid, the camera work was very good, and the score was creepy and atmospheric without being overly blunt or cliched. Meanwhile, the scene did an admirable job of introducing our monsters through events that were scary and shocking, despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that the presentation wasn’t overly gory or explicit. So far, so good.
We meet our main cast after the credits, and the relationship between them is actually quite interesting to watch. See, Alex (Guy Pearce) is a professional architect, and he’s betting his career on his renovation of the old Blackwood manor. Helping him is his girlfriend, an interior designer named Kim (Katie Holmes). Into this mess comes Alex’s daughter, Sally (relative newcomer Bailee Madison), who’s been sent over by her mom for an indefinite length of time.
The interesting part is that even though it’s never explicitly stated, Alex and Sally obviously haven’t seen each other for quite some time. The girl is clearly very smart for her age, yet Alex can’t help seeing her as a little kid. Then there’s the matter of Sally and Kim, neither of whom know what to do with each other. Sally and her adult guardians are all on very different emotional pages, so of course the girl is in a lonely and unstable place. Therefore, it’s easy to see why Sally would be eager to look for understanding and friendship where she could get it, which is important to the premise. Furthermore, each of these three characters are in a very understandable and relatable place, which makes them sympathetic. Until the first act ends, anyway.
Before I get to bashing this movie, I want it made clear that from a technical standpoint, it’s wonderful. The production design is so amazing that the house is very effectively made a character in itself. My personal favorite part of it was the garden that looked like it came right out of a storybook. The visuals are also extraordinary, though there are a few shots that are oppresively dark. Owing to the premise, however, I can let that slide.
Then there’s the sound design. The score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders is uniformly remarkable, delivering the old “strings and silence” cliches we’ve come to expect from horror scores, but with more than enough twists to keep it fresh. I also loved the sound design, particularly how subtle whispers were used to hint at the presence of the homunculi.
As for the horror aspect, I thought the scares were perfectly serviceable in their setup and execution, even if a few of them strained plausibility. For example, remember that scene under the blankets that was seen in all the trailers? In the context of the movie, I found myself wondering why the kid didn’t just throw the blankets off the bed. Also, the primary weapon used against the homunculi is the flash on a Polaroid camera. Do those still exist anymore?
For all my nitpicks against the horror of the film, its monsters are still easily the best part of the movie. Their design is wonderful, the effects on them look great, and they all clearly move and act like creatures of flesh and blood. Also, these monsters follow the once-proud tradition of causing mischief and leaving children to catch the blame for it, which I thought was presented quite well. I really have only one major complaint against them, but it’s a doozy.
On the one hand, I really like the homunculi’s sound design. Their whispers are otherworldly and very creepy, especially in how they sound like so many different beings that all speak in one voice and think with one mind. On the other hand, I dislike the homunculi’s sound design. They sound far too disturbing, without any allure or seduction in their tone. I mean, imagine that you’re an eight-year-old girl of above-average intelligence. Would you trust some unknown entity with that rasping voice, no matter how lonely you felt? Didn’t think so.
And yet, that’s exactly what our young protagonist does. She knowingly steals some tools, sneaks into the basement, and puts muscle into freeing the voices in the previously-concealed basement, lying to her would-be stepmom along the way. This might have made sense if the voices offered Sally anything besides pleas for help, or if they sounded like anything worth setting free, but no. The “we want to be your friends” angle is pretty much completely undeveloped at this point.
Basically put, everything that happens in this movie is Sally’s fault, all because of something she did without any understandable reason. So it was that half an hour in, I ceased caring about our main character.
Her dad was next, and he wasn’t far behind at all. See, Alex plays the role of skeptic, always looking for the rational explanation. It’s a time-honored and natural inclusion for movies of this genre. However, there’s being in denial, there’s being stupid, there’s about 100 IQ points below that, and then there’s Alex. This is a guy who finds a human tooth in his daughter’s room and replies “Huh. You shouldn’t keep this around, it isn’t sanitary.” It’s absolutely staggering how many times he outright refuses to see all the blatant evidence that’s right in front of him. He could stare a homunculus right in the face and think it was just a mutated rat.
This would be bad enough, except that at some point in the second act, when Sally is really starting to freak out on a regular basis, Alex starts focusing less on her and more on the house. There’s a significant portion of the movie in which Kim is actually far more concerned about Sally than her own father is, and he has the balls to deny it. To sum up: Fuck this guy.
That leaves us with Kim. If I haven’t already stated this on record, I’d like to do so now: Katie Holmes’ presence poisoned Thank You for Smoking and Batman Begins, two very good films that would have been made so much better if not for the inferior work that Holmes did in both. So imagine my surprise to find that when the plot really gets moving, Holmes actually delivers a decent performance. Of course, it helps that her character doesn’t have to convey much except “horrific surprise” and “blind panic” through most of the second half, but Holmes still does a remarkable job of portraying the developing relationship between Kim and Sally. Of course, Bailee Madison gives her a lot to work with, which certainly helps.
But then, just as I was getting to like this character, there came a scene in the second act. Kim is tucking Sally in to sleep, just before Sally begs for Kim not to leave. She wants Kim to stay with her through the night, explicitly telling her to stay even after Sally falls asleep. Kim agrees… and then proceeds to leave when Sally falls asleep.
Kim didn’t stay. Sally asked her to stay and she didn’t stay. The kid was deathly scared of something and Kim knew it, but she didn’t stay. The dad’s girlfriend is just starting to get in the daughter’s good graces, and she didn’t stay. Folks, I don’t have kids of my own, but I thought this was Parenting 101. If a child that young is that terrified of something that goes bump in the night — especially if all manner of crazy and unexplained events have been happening lately — and (s)he asks you to stay through the night, YOU STAY. Bad stepmom! Bad, bad stepmom! No treat for you, and no sympathy for the rest of the movie!
Well before the third act of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, the movie’s terror had completely lost its punch because I had totally stopped caring about what happened to these characters. In fact, in Alex’s case, I was actively rooting for the homunculi. It’s really a damn shame, since the movie is very impressive on a technical level, especially for a first-time director. This could easily have been a great movie, if only a few simple measures were taken to fix these wretched characters.
I can recommend a Blu-Ray rental for the visuals and the score. Otherwise, don’t bother.