Sunday, 9 October 2011

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. Um...okay. I won't.

WARNING! This trailer is waaay scarier than the actual movie.

Don’t be Afraid of the Dark is written and produced by the great Guillermo Del Toro and is a remake of on an old TV movie that apparently traumatised Del Toro as a child. But for some reason he didn’t want to direct his own script this time and so handed the reigns over to first timer Troy Nixey.

The story sees ten-year-old Sally (Bailee Madison) being sent by an uncaring mother to live with her dad (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend (Katie Holmes) in the old, rundown mansion that her dad is renovating in order to sell for a profit. Sally, feeling rejected by her mother and unwanted by her busy father, explores the old house, finding a hidden cellar and an old metal grate bolted shut. From behind the grate she hears whispered voices asking for help, promising to be her friend. Lonely and desperate for a connection, to feel wanted, Sally opens the grate, thus releasing a horde of nasty little gremlin-like creatures in to the house. Creatures we soon discover lied to her and want the little girl for their own horrible ends.

First, let’s get one thing straight. Despite the marketing, Don’t be Afraid of the Dark is not really a horror film.

Okay, it has some mild violence when the local handyman gets attacked by the nasty little critters, and a couple of so so ‘boo’ moments, but the overriding feel is of a mildly creepy fairy story. A Brothers Grimm tale. As in his film Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro uses the classic fairytale trope of a little child, feeling alone in the world, getting sucked in to another weird and creepy world full of fairies and monsters. There is even the set-up of a potentially wicked stepmother in the Katie Holmes girlfriend character. But Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark lacks the depth and artistic sensibilities of Del Toro's earlier classic, though it mirrors it in certain ways. Pan’s Labyrinth is an intelligent adult take on how young children can use their innocent imagination to conjure an escape from the harsh realities of life. It is a brutal, haunting, and beautiful film that packs a big emotional wallop. Here, things are reversed. The supernatural ‘horror’ is real and allows the child to finally form a meaningful relationship with a kindly parental figure rather than said child using an imagined supernatural fantasy to escape from adult brutality.

As director, Troy Nixey does solid enough work but can’t seem to create any real tension or a genuine sense of foreboding. He also fails to make the little monsters properly scary. We see way too much of them far too early. Also the tone of the film is kinda contradictory. On the one hand it wants to be a child friendly spookfest, like something Disney might have made live action back in the 1970’s. There’s no swearing, no nudity, and no sex. But on the other hand it does have some blood and some brief graphic violence (old dude getting stabbed by scissors and slashed by a Stanley knife). It wants to be a child friendly fairytale but also a graphic horror too. And as a result, fails to do either especially well.

Of the cast, only young Bailee Madison as Sally makes an impression. She does lonely and afraid very well and really sells the emotional fragility of a child who feels unwanted and pushed from pillar to post, who’s quietly desperate to make a connection with someone…or something. Guy Pearce as the dad is okay. He is pretty much the stock busy, distracted father who disbelieves anything fanciful coming from his ‘troubled’ young daughter. Katie Holmes is also ok as Kim. Actually, to be fair, I did quite like the often much maligned Holmes here. Kim and Sally seem quite similar. Artistic, unsure of themselves, with Kim alluding to her own troubled childhood. And despite Sally’s initial hostility, Kim feels a connection with the little girl. It is also interesting that Bailee Madison and Katie Holmes look very similar. They could be related. Check out Bailee’s photo on IMDB – a dead spit for a young Holmes. Oh, and just as a point of interest, the movie also features Aussie actor Alan Dale in a small role, sharing a couple of scenes with Guy Pearce. Twenty years ago Alan played Jim Robinson in Aussie soap Neighbours alongside Guy who played Jim’s son’s best friend. Small world.

Anyway, in the end, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is an okay little movie that works better as a kids fairytale than as an adult horror. It isn’t scary, the creatures are fairly well done but kinda silly, while overall tension is sadly lacking. But the film looks good, Bailee Madison gives a strong central performance as Sally, and the basic concept is classically appealing, especially to me being the sucker that I am for fairytales in all their guises. 3 (out of 5)

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