[Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
Directed by Troy Nixey
Starring: Bailee Madison, Katie Holmes, and Guy Pearce
MPAA: R – For Violence and Terror]
Sometimes, the best way to get attention in the horror crowd is actually not really doing anything original, but rather to be a welcoming throwback to the good ol’ days. This is one of the many reasons why everyone, including myself, loved Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell. Yet, for some reason, critics have been getting relatively mixed on Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Why?
At first, I couldn’t really see why. An old-school throwback of the Haunted House genre but with Lovecraftian monstrosities rather than ghosts, starring Guy Pearce and Bailee Madison of the under-appreciated Brothers remake, and it is being produced by Guillermo Del Fucking Toro? Oh man, that’s just, like, all the things that I love in one thing. It’s a Christmas morning where all the presents are replaced with tigers, and everyone rides on them in Disneyland while chocolate syrup is smothering Natalie Portman’s naked figure as everyone danced on the corpse of Miley Cyrus and Yahtzee Croshaw narrates the whole incident. How in God’s name can this go wrong?
Apparently…plenty of ways.
Okay, okay, let’s get this out of the way: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is quite good. It’s got a strong atmosphere, Del Toro’s signature visual flair is all over it, the performances are top notch, it has a nice slow burn, and it’s just nice to see a classic haunted house film; a sub-genre which I always love when done well.
That being said, there are some things that keep it from truly being anything note-worthy, rather than just having the “solid rental” status it currently has.
Let’s get into our synopsis first. Bailee Madison (Brothers) plays Sally, a young girl with a vivid imagination who has to move in with a new parent in a new location that just so happens to have creepy monsters lurking in its vicinity. Hey, sounds an awful lot like another Guillermo Del Toro movie, rite gais?
Whenever she’s alone, Sally can hear creepy whispers from the walls which ever so creepily state how they “just want to play and be friends”, and lure her into the basement. When these new friends end up being hostile towards her, she keeps warning her father (Guy Pearce, Memento) and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes, Batman Begins) that there are terrible monsters. As per usual, they are reluctant to agree with her at first, and you can just tell that one of them is going to totally get it bad at the end.
The creatures of the film, have one weakness that Sally can use to her advantage: Light. Her only means of fending herself from the monsters is by shining a flashlight at them, Alan Wake style.
Speaking of Alan Wake, there seems to be plenty of subtle video game inspirations spread throughout Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Not only does the flashlight as a means of a weapon bring up Alan Wake, but when she doesn’t have a flashlight, Sally resorts to, no joke, a fucking polaroid camera. If that’s not a shout out to Fatal Frame, I dunno what is.
The plot is as traditional as traditional can be.
“Dad! Dad! There are monsters under the bed!”
“Sweetie, it’s all just in your imagination.”
“BUT YOU GOTTA BELIEVE ME OR THEY’LL EAT ME UP, DAD!!”
It never feels like it’s being derivative however. Guillermo Del Toro and director Troy Nixey obviously seem to have affection for this classic formula, and pay sweet homage to it rather than aping it. This is thanks mainly to the performances and the solid direction of the picture.
Atmosphere is what you’d expect out of a Del Toro produced horror film. There’s a gothic flavor to the house. It’s big with many secret doors, passageways, gardens, perfect for a little girl with an unfortunate curiosity to be easily lost in. The days are gray and cloudy, the nights are pitch dark, the house is secluded from the more modern city-scapes apparently twenty minutes away, the stairs creak, the hallways echo, what more do you want?
Where the movie falters is that it usually becomes too traditional to a fault. It’s really cool to see these classic building blocks permeate the film, but it becomes a one-trick pony. Once you’ve seen one shot of a darkly lit room you’ve seen ’em all. Strong as the atmosphere is, director Troy Nixey doesn’t offer enough variety or underlying tension to give each shot suspense, thus making the more dialogue-heavy sequences a drag.
The main thing that disappointed me the most about DBAotD, however, was the creatures. This being a Guillermo Del Toro produced film, one would expect some imagination and life put into the creature designs, but rather, the buggering monsters here look more like humanoid rats with cheesy whispery voices (Cheesy, but still undeniably creepy, I must add). Even more disappointing was the extensive CG used to portray the creatures.
I’m pretty sure I’ve already bitched about this before…so I’ll bitch about it again.
CG is both one of the best and worst things to ever happen to the film industry. When done right, it can take moviegoers to places beyond our wildest dreams in stunning detail, bring eccentric, magical, mysterious beings to life before your very eyes, all that magical shit. When done wrong, it can be horrendously cheesy, painful to watch, and remove any sense of immersion from the experience.
While Don’t Be Afraid has some good CG (Good, not great, I might add), remember: This is a horror movie. And as a general rule, horror and CG mix about as well as having Justin Bieber open up a Dethklok concert…no wait, that would actually be pretty fun to watch, but my point still stands.
Yes. Those creepy glowing eyes are a thousand times scarier than the actual monsters.
One of the main attributes of good horror is the sense of the unknown. The less information we’re given, the more the audience is taken out of their comfort zone, making for the right moment to strike with Jack Nicholson axe-ing up the nearest door. This is especially true when you’re doing a monster movie, no matter how small the monsters may be. Jaws doesn’t even have an actual monster; just a god damn regular shark, and it’s still terrifying because of how little information is being processed.
To quote (for the umpteenth bazillionth time) Roger Ebert, “…what really scares us is the stuff we can’t see. The noise in the dark is almost always scarier than what makes the noise in the dark.”
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, however, frequently shows the little buggers scurrying across the house, sometimes doing mega close-ups on their old, wrinkly faces. Strong as the atmosphere is, it can’t distract us from the fact that the creatures aren’t scary because we see enough close-ups of them to get a good sense of what they are, and we are put back in the comfort zone.
So far it would seem that Don’t Be Afraid isn’t worth your time at all, just from reading up to here in the review. I’ve complained about monotonous atmosphere, lousy creature designs, even lousier uses of CGI for said creatures, and even the good stuff only seems to come from how much it reminds you of those old Haunted House movies you love so much. Is there anything good about this movie that actually brings a new element, to the table?
If there is anything that makes the movie effective in any way, shape, or form, it is Bailee Madison in the lead role. Not just in terms of her acting, but her entire character is vital to the success of this film.
Usually, centering a child as the main protagonist of a horror film would be considered exploitative, manipulative, and just plain not fun to watch. And, let’s not kid ourselves here, it is a really cheap way to raise the stakes in a film when you have a character who is as helpless as an orphan puppy, actually even more helpless than an orphan puppy, at least orphan puppies have the tenacity to bite assholes in the balls every now and then.
This is why children are rarely ever killed off in a horror film, unless it is done off screen, before the actual plot starts to give a parental protagonist some conflict, etc. And even then, the children usually aren’t the main characters. This is why nobody liked The Good Son. It was cheap, manipulative, and a prime example of how not to use child protagonists in a horror film.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is probably one of the first and only examples I can think of that does this well. This is mostly due to both the defining of Sally’s character and Bailee Madison’s performance. Watching a child suffer through unrelenting terror is hard enough to watch, but it becomes manipulative because they have practically no way to defend themselves.
Madison doesn’t have this problem.
Bailee Madison, of course, doesn’t have much to defend herself with, either, but she’s far from helpless. She’s, at least, smart enough to know what is going on around her, the kind of predicament she’s in, what she can do to protect herself, and most importantly of all, she’s brave and determined enough to have the audience root for her, without making her too invincible nor too vulnerable.
This creates a character we can care about, and adds much needed tension without ever feeling cheap, even though it just might be cheap. Doesn’t really matter though. The film retained its scariness on the weight of Bailee Madison alone. She’s able to pull off a difficult balancing act well, and she’s probably one of the most underrated child actors working today (Again, I mention Brothers). She’s scared when she needs to be, reasonably so, but when it’s time to take action, she’s brave enough so the audience can care about her.
I will also say that the climax is really well done. It almost makes the incredibly slow build-up worth it. It’s suspenseful, it ends on a wonderfully bitter note, and contains plenty of creepy imagery to give you some mild, but still rather effective nightmare fuel.
Final Verdict: It doesn’t exactly fulfill on the promise of all the talent behind it. The atmosphere is good, but repetitive; the creatures are not well-designed, nor is their CG used to good effect; and most of the bits involving dialogue and character interaction can be a drag to sit through. What saves it are a handful of creepy moments and a wonderfully effective performance from child actress Bailee Madison.
But wait, we’re not finished yet. There’s one last thing I’d like to bitch about that isn’t too related to the movie.
3D. You’ve heard of it right? No? It’s that annoying gimmick studios use to raise ticket prices by giving their audiences headaches by applying lower brightness levels, bad blurring, gimmicky “throw stuff at the audience” moments into their films. But hey, as bad as most of it is, I don’t really mind. I can always have the option to just see my movies in 2D.
I mean, it’s not like 3D films are ruining my 2D viewing experiences…right? Right? RIGHT?!?!
I’ve heard plenty of stories of this, mainly from Roger Ebert (Man, I read a lot of Ebert…), in which theaters would project 2D films through 3D projectors, thus making the picture dimmer, blurrier, muddier, etc. However, I haven’t experienced it until now, and it what made it all the worse was that it happened during, of all movies, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Which, obviously, contains plenty of darkness levels that made the 3D projection all the more discomforting to view.
Almost all of the night scenes were so incomprehensible to view it was maddening. It’s one of those films that relies on darkness, and visual trickery to make things in the background stand out, but the damned projector made everything darker and I probably missed out on some cool moments.
Sorry, that kinda went nowhere, but yeah, I got pretty pissed. So to theater projectionists: Remember to switch the fucking projectors every once in a while.
That is all.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta get a snapshot of those stupid bed bugs. ONLY WITH PHOTOGRAPHIC FATAL FRAME EVIDENCE WILL MY PARENTS BELIEVE ME!!
And yes, that scene in which she’s crawling in the bed is even more pants-shitting in a theater with good sound.