By James Melville
My goodness, two weeks in and I’m actually still reviewing movies in theaters. As my twelve die-hard fans will know, that’s freaking amazing. Don’t get used to it. Also, holla to my boy Hans Gruber. Anyway, on with the show.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011):
The Plot: Eight-year-old Sally (Bailee Madison) is sent to live with her father (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend (Katie Holmes) in a creepy old mansion that daddy is restoring so he can make money. Sally discovers strange creatures living in her basement, and soon realizes that they don’t really want to be friends. Because friends don’t let friends try to eat children’s teeth.
Let me start off by saying that although Guillermo del Toro’s name is on this thing, he didn’t direct it. He co-wrote the screenplay and produced the film. Kind of like how Tim Burton didn’t direct The Nightmare Before Christmas. Henry Selick did. Selick also directed James and the Giant Peach and Coraline. And you know what? Coraline is a much better movie than The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a pretty good film. Actually, it starts off really well. The opening scene—set in the 1800s—is creepy and intense. It does a good job of establishing what the creatures do, if not what they look like just yet. After the opening credits, the film takes time to introduce and develop the three principal characters. Sally is imaginative, strong-willed and intelligent, but also deeply upset by the sudden changes dominating her life. Alex, her father, is friendly but distant. Although he’s dedicated to his work, he really does want to be a good father to Sally. He just doesn’t know how. She’s spent the last few years with her mother, and they both need to learn how to interact with each other again. Kim, the girlfriend, isn’t sure she’s ready to look after a child, but loves Alex and wants to love Sally, too. Watching these three different people struggle to make a family could have been an interesting movie on its own.
That’s the set-up, and each character is developed more as the movie goes on. But this is a horror movie, so the family stuff starts to take a back seat to all the eerie goings on. Once set free, the creatures follow Sally, whispering to her en masse and telling her to come down to the basement so they can be friends. She buys it, at first, but then they start doing things like taking one of her father’s razors and shredding some of Kim’s dresses, and she starts to wonder. Then she finally sees one, and realizes that they are, in fact, horrifying little beasties. It’s no longer a question of finding out what they want, but of convincing her father and Kim that there really are creepy-as-hell fairies living in the basement.
A lot of people I’ve talked to about this film wish they’d held off on the monster reveal for much longer. It comes about halfway through the movie, but I don’t think seeing the creatures makes them all that much less of a threat. They’re pretty scary looking. Seriously. Seeing them just trades out the creep factor for the ohgodgetitawayfrommyface factor.
That having been said, the movie does lose some of the dread-inducing atmosphere that was so beneficial to the first half. You start seeing the creatures more and more frequently, and it gets harder and harder to believe that Sally’s father wouldn’t at least think: “Hey, my daughter is having a bunch of psychotic episodes that are somehow tied to this house, which now that I think of it, is super creepy. Maybe I should take her somewhere else.” Even if that gets a little frustrating at times, the film does make great use of the classic Don’t Believe the Child situation. Creepy fairies? Yeah, right. The kid saw them? Pfft. Kids are stupid. Or crazy. Or both. Stupid, crazy kids.
Bailee Madison does an excellent job of not being annoying, which is pretty much all I ask from children in movies. But she plays Sally like a real person. She’s a smart, inquisitive kid. It’s not unrealistic for her to keep going back into the basement before she realizes that everything down there is scary as shit. Madison carries the film very well, which isn’t surprising, since I just looked her up and realized that she’s been in twenty-nine movies since 2006. Well, color me impressed.
As for the adults, Guy Pearce managed to give some depth to a role that could have easily been a recycled archetype. Katie Holmes is given a bit more to do, and she really shines here. Her relationship with Sally is believable, as is her growing determination to do everything she can to save the little girl.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a pretty good movie, and I enjoyed it, even if it could have been better. I haven’t seen the original TV movie from 1973, but I’m pretty sure that this version can stand up on its own.
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