Thursday, September 15, 2011

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2011) - Theatrical Review


Release Date: August 26, 2011

What can a scary movie possibly do to not actually be scary? Think about that for a second...not too easy an answer to come by is it? Well if you are curious to find out exactly how to accomplish such a feat then look no further than the new film from first time director Troy Nixey, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: AMC 30 at the Block in Orange
Time: 12:01 am August 26, 2011
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime: 1 hr 40 min
Studio: Miramax

Loves: Guillermo Del Toro
Likes: Scary movies, Guy Pearce
Neutral: Creature features
Hates: Stupid characters, scary movies that aren't scary
Fact: Guillermo Del Toro DID NOT direct this movie

This review has taken a little while for me to get to. Usually I like to put my thoughts down on paper (metaphorically of course) just after watching a movie but I was so confounded by what exactly this movie was or was trying to be. The early buzz was good, having a name like Guillermo Del Toro doesn't hurt either and that first trailer that showed absolutely nothing besides a little girl curiously looking under her covers told me everything I wanted to know about it. For a movie to scare me though it takes a certain kind of skill on the filmmakers part. Earlier this year I (surprisingly) found myself unnerved by the little haunted house movie Insidious which played with expectations and took the tired formula of a family under attack by ghostly apparitions and made it fresh again. I, and I believe many others, were under the impression that Don't Be Afraid of the Dark was also gonna give the horror genre a kick in the ass, but instead I feel like I was just kicked in the nuts.

Sally (Bailee Madison) has been sent off to live with her father Ted (Guy Pearce) and his live-in girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) by her mother who is busy living the single life back in California. Ted and Kim are in the middle of restoring an old mansion though in hopes of getting Ted out of a financial crisis. While they are restoring the mansion back to its old glory the three of them live inside the gigantic home. Sally is not very happy with her mother dumping her like she did which is compounded by the initial hatred she feels towards Kim in a you're-not-my-mother sort of way. Little does she or anyone else know the terrors that lie waiting in the shadows deep within the bowls of this seemingly normal mansion.

Don't be afraid to look creepy.

So what exactly went wrong here? You have a creepy mansion, a curious and "smart" little girl who likes to investigate anything that may lead to her certain demise, a bunch of nasty little critters that have a hunger for human teeth and an appropriately moody atmosphere. Apparently checking things off a list isn't nearly good enough to succeed at making a scary movie as proven here. There are so many problems that I actually do not know where to start. I suppose we can start where the movie itself begins which was the first major stumbling block for the entire film from which it never truly recovers.

The film opens with a flashback to Blackwood Manor where we follow an innocent and doomed young house maiden as she answers her master's call beckoning her to the basement. Upon entering the basement we soon discover that things are not quite what they seem as Mr. Blackwood assaults the young woman and takes a hammer to her mouth to dislodge her teeth killing her in the process. What does he need her teeth for you ask? We quickly discover that the man has made a few acquaintances in the basement who are holding his son hostage...or so he thinks. They have one simple request from the man, they want teeth...but not just any teeth, they want children's teeth. Not liking his offering the little creatures make quick work of the old man and then we are sent forward to the present day.

Don't be afraid to open that grate.

Did that sound creepy to you...? I'm sure it did, at least a little. But the problem with that sequence is that we learn everything there is to know about the movie in the first five minutes. And what I mean by that being a problem is that while WE know what is going on the characters we are following don't have a clue with none of them ever reaching the same level of knowledge we have until the very end of the film. The crime committed here is that we now see all the actions the characters make as utterly asinine even though given their frame of mind they really aren't. Giving the audience that much of an edge over the characters is never a good idea especially in a horror film. It just leads to the audience ridiculing everything that every character does and makes the whole affair extremely boring.

Giving everything away is not detrimental though and if a movie is good enough it can often rise above such imposed limitations, but Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is not that kind of film unfortunately. Even if we didn't know what these little creatures wanted, what they looked like and how dangerous they were it still wouldn't fix half the other more major issues with the film. The biggest detractor for me and I would think for anyone that likes to have the shit scared out of them is that it just isn't that scary. Not once did I find myself even slightly on edge as characters moved around in barely lit rooms while whispers and the patter of little feet could be heard all around. This lack of fear can be attributed directly to how the film deals with the little creatures in question.

Don't be afraid of talking to someone.

First of all we see them fairly early on and I'm sorry, their impressive design aside, they just aren't something that strikes fear in me (and judging from the laughter of my audience anyone else either). If I had to describe them I would say picture the goblins and orcs from any fantasy film of your choice with the mischievous behavior of gremlins. On the surface that sounds like a pretty cool mix of design elements but in reality they just look like some kind of annoying insect that needs to be stepped on (they look to be only a few inches tall). So once it is revealed what is making all those noises that go bump in the night their constant coaxing of Sally to join them in the basement comes off as kind of humorous, kind of like seeing somebody that you know is up to no good trying to lure someone into a prank. I can't help but feel as if we didn't see them so early on that maybe the impact of their torments would have worked a little better.

But even then I don't think anything could make these things feel even remotely threatening. There is a scene about half way through the film where all the creatures gang up on someone grab scissors, needles and all kinds of small cutting tools and overrun him. The entire time this person was being attacked all I could think about was how much it reminded me of Gulliver's Travels and how funny it was that this guy was being beat down by a group of tiny creatures. I don't think it was funny that the man was attacked, but it just looked kind of silly which was a common reaction I had whenever the creatures appeared on film. I love movies like Gremlins because they are fun and have a mean streak to them that adds just the right amount of fear and funny. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark was marketed as an extremely scary movie, not an amusing movie with little creatures running around causing mayhem.

Don't be afraid of taking a bath.

Am I wrong for thinking this way? I don't know to be honest. All I can say is that I went into this movie expecting to be scared and instead I came away from it mostly annoyed by its lack of scares. But what if the movie was actually scary though...what if you do find those little creatures frightening? If what I have mentioned already seems petty or off target then let me explain a few other things that drag this movie down to the bowels of horror misfires. If any of what I have said had not been an issue this movie would still not live up to expectations simply due to just how stupid and illogical everything is that occurs in it. There are plot holes, character motivations and other bits of stupidity that was quite honestly pretty staggering.

I am not usually the type of person who would list stuff off in order to make a point but in this case I can think of no other way to properly imply the idiocy at work here. When a person is impaled by numerous objects all over their body and is nearly killed is it normal for the police to call it an accident without any sort of investigation? Why would parents keep putting their child in bed, in the dark, all by herself over and over and over again EVEN after she had clearly been attacked numerous times? If the creatures can be killed by light then why the hell doesn't Sally just flip the light switch on when they attack her in the bathroom WHEN SHE IS STANDING RIGHT NEXT TO IT! After trying numerous times to get evidence to show to her dad that the creatures are real why doesn't she show him the dead body of the one she just killed instead of showing him a blurry photograph? Why do the creatures bother trying to seduce Sally into being their friend when it is clear later on in the film that they could have just easily knocked her out and taken her by force? Most of all though is after it is made known to all characters what is beneath that mansion, WHY DO THEY ALL JUST LEAVE AND FORGET ABOUT IT?

Don't be afraid to skip this movie.

I'm serious here, what the hell? Not that I was expecting them to bring in the army but my god...they put bigger bolts on the gate and that's it...? I'm sorry but given how this movie was structured we needed a sequence where they crawled down that hole and f**ked shit up. Hell, since they know the things can't stand light just send some lights down the tunnel and kill them all. Nope, they seal it up and that's it. I would have been upset if by that point I still cared about anything that was happening. It doesn't happen to me often but I seriously don't think this movie is worth the (digital) film it was printed on. I hate that this movie got me prepped for some thrills and chills. I hate that this movie has now given me pause when I see Guillermo Del Toro's name on something. I hate that I have spent this much time writing about it. I hate my experience of watching this movie so much that I think it will be a long time until I trust another "scary" movie again. I think this goes without saying but...




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