Saturday, January 21, 2012
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
Director: Troy Nixey
Starring: Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison, Jack Thompson
Running Time: 99 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark does a lot right and gets one thing wrong. But the thing that goes wrong will be all everyone wants to talk about when it's over, which isn't completely fair. Having not seen the 1973 ABC made-for-television horror movie that scared Guillermo del Toro enough as a kid to want to produce this remake, I'll guess it's probably more frightening this version, only because I imagine it did less. With a much smaller budget the filmmakers would have no choice. And that's the advantage the older horror movies will always have over their newer counterparts: Age. Anything older tends to look and feel scarier because of the lower production values, while anything newer just inherently looks slicker and therefore less threatening. This remake impresses with how it uses mood and atmosphere to sidestep that problem, fumbling only when it goes for too much. You'd never know from the advertising that Del Toro didn't actually direct this but his fingerprints are clearly all over it, to the point where I occasionally questioned whether his involvement helped. It's frustrating when a movie just needs to pull back and do less to get more because that problem seems so easily correctable. Still, it's a welcome throwback that doesn't feel exactly like your average modern horror movie and the two lead performances carrying it are phenomenal. They're sure to be as underrated and overlooked as the talented actresses giving them, one of whom is back on track in a major way. The rest of the movie is okay too. But it's just okay, when it had the tools to be great.
After a creepy prologue taking place in the early 1900's, the movie flashes forward to the present when young Sally (Bailee Madison) is sent by her mother to live with her architect father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) in an old, large mansion they're redecorating in Rhode Island. Sad, over-medicated, and all but ignored by her workaholic dad, Sally fails to form much of a connection with Kim, instead spending her time exploring Blackwood Manor. She starts hearing voices from the basement, and after some investigating, unwillingly unleashes an army of Gollum-looking gremlins with razor sharp teeth and almost ridiculously distinctive facial features. They start to wreck havoc, targeting the property's caretaker (Jack Thompson), eating furniture and shredding clothes in hopes of finding a human sacrifice. Preferably a child. The biggest change from the original is making the protagonist a child instead of an adult, a good call considering nothing creates tension and terror like a child in peril. Guy Pearce has the most ludicrous role in the film and it's difficult to tell how much of that can be attributed to the writing, which practically necessitates his character be a dope, insisting everything's in Sally's head and accusing her of acting out for attention. A necessity from a story standpoint, but it's still feels like the normally reliable Pearce is reciting lines and collecting a paycheck. Or it could be that his co-stars are just so good.
The relationship between Kim and Sally carry the film and the performances from Holmes and Madison are outstanding. Precocious but never too cute, Madison makes her character seem sullen and desperately curious rather than just a merely a helpless victim, which is a nice change from the norm. Armed with her Polaroid camera as a weapon (the creatures don't like flashes) she goes on the offensive more often than not. A few years ago when Madison appeared in Brothers I wrote that the weak acting link was clearly Natalie Portman, completely miscast and unbelievable as a mother to her. I specifically suggested Katie Holmes would have been a far better choice and it feels good to be proven completely right, as Holmes really shines here opposite Madison in exactly the way Portman couldn't in that film. After wisely laying low for the past few years appearing in mostly small, independent films (notwithstanding the Kennedys miniseries she did an underrated job in) it's been a long time since she's anchored a mainstream release like this and boy is it great to have her back and firing on all cylinders, especially in a part playing to all her strengths. As Kim, she grows into the unfamiliar role of de facto step mom to this withdrawn child, overcoming her own past to become Sally's protector and the only adult she can rely on. With a mixture of strength, intelligence, sensitivity and warmth, Katie makes her the most likable character in the film, delivering a performance that should win over any doubters. She also makes a surprisingly effective scream queen, letting out a yell at the end of the film that would make Jamie Lee Curtis proud. If horror movies these days were better, I'd say she should appear in more of them, but since they aren't, she probably shouldn't. But this was a good step regardless. Though the bias media would never acknowledge it, Holmes has been clawing and scratching her way back lately, quietly making all the right choices to return to relevance as an actress.
While it's inevitable that at some point we have to see the creatures, many of the scarier scenes come before that, when Sally's alone and we see nothing. When the CGI creatures do show up there's no getting around the fact it seems to come too early and we get too much of them. They don't necessarily look "fake" per se (and I have no idea how their appearance differs from the original), but they are slickly rendered, which probably wasn't the best choice given the old school approach they've already taken with the material. Horror just might be the only the genre where a film's quality has an inverse relationship to the size of its budget. It seems the more money you spend the less authentic things seem to look and feel, and this is hardly the worst offender. In fact, it's rather conservative compared to others in that regard so that even this eventually does give in with the special effects is telling. But more fascinating than that is despite the film being helmed by first-timer Troy Nixey, I'm betting that decision was more than likely made by Del Toro, who (like Spielberg and Lucas) was probably so enamored with the technology that it never occurred to him that approach may not the best fit for this story. He's also obsessed with myths and fairy tales, which is fine, if it didn't lead to an over-explanatory library research scene Holmes is forced to save. Everything else Nixey does from a directorial standpoint in terms of creating suspense is so effective it's reasonable to believe a modern horror classic was within grasp if better decisions were made regarding the creatures and less work was put into making them look cool. Should they have shown them at all? That's the million dollar question. They probably should have, but not as much, and maybe left a little room open for the interpretation that this little girl might really be losing it. Just suggesting that possibility would be more terrifying than anything we're shown.
Showing too much is a problem found in horror movies today that we'd never have to contend with in the 70's because they didn't have the budget to do that, and the films mostly benefited as a result. That said, despite the somewhat inexplicable "R" rating, this could hardly be considered a gore fest that trades in suspense for brutal kills. It still shows less than we're used to, relying mostly on atmosphere to tell its story, giving it a kind of a throwback feel that puts it in a different league than most modern day horror. The ending is frustrating, but in a good way. It's never bad when you care enough about a character enough to actually get angry at their eventual fate. It makes the bond between the two main characters seem even more meaningful in retrospect. For kids who accidentally stumble upon Don't Be Afraid of the Dark on cable in the middle of the night, it's probably just as likely as the original to cause nightmares for those who grew up with it. For adults, it'll be suspenseful and entertaining. It's hard not to appreciate the craftsmanship that went into in re-making this, while still wishing there was just a little less of it.