Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Review by Bob Ignizio

What could be more horrifying to a child than the possibility that your parents don't love you? For poor Sally (Bailee Madison) the evidence seems to point to just that grim conclusion. Her mother has tried to cope with the little girl by drugging her up until now, but when that fails to make the little girl docile enough, she's sent to live with her career obsessed father Alex (Guy Pearce). He's currently renovating a creepy mansion in hopes of making the cover or Architectural Digest and has little time to spend paying attention to his daughter. Sally isn't interested in being friends with his dad's new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes), either. But there are other entities residing in the old dark house to play with, and they want Sally to stay with them forever.

The original DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK was an effective made for TV shocker that managed to overcome the limitations of its budget and medium to leave a lasting impression on many who saw it, among them Guillermo Del Toro, co-writer and producer of this remake. It did so largely through subtext, atmosphere, and a strong central performance by Kim Darby as an unhappy housewife that made up for the somewhat cartoonish supporting performances and threadbare special effects. Although the cheap yet creepy creatures are what many remember, it's the film's themes and potent ending, which echoes Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, that still packs a punch today.

Sadly, this remake seems oblivious to what made the original film so memorable, opting for a “bigger is better” approach instead. It sacrifices characterization and thematic coherency in favor of impressively Gothic set design and too much time spent on the mythology of the creepy little monsters scurrying about. Tying the little beasties in with the myth of the tooth fairy adds nothing, nor do references to classic horror authors both overt (Arthur Machen) and indirect (Algernon Blackwood, who most likely provided the surname of the mansion's previous owner, and H.P. Lovecraft whose stamp is all over the feel of the film, particularly in the resemblance of the film's creatures to the inbred monstrosities of The Lurking Fear) do anything but show us that Del Toro knows his horror history. Where the original gave us food for thought, this version mainly serves up eye candy and jump scares.

The change of central character Sally from unfulfilled housewife to unloved child has the potential to work just as well, and isn't surprising given Del Toro's fondness for juvenile protagonists. The subtext is still there: the Freudian symbolism of the monsters being locked up in the basement of the house, representing Sally's subconscious, is unmistakeable. Their first attacks directed against Kim further reinforce the notion that the creatures are a manifestation of Sally's inner turmoil. But the themes become increasingly diminished and muddled as the film goes on, leading up to a conclusion that undermines the film's psychological impact. DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK simply lacks the courage to end the way it should. One of the major characters still dies at the conclusion, but it's the wrong one, and the feeble attempts to give that death added emotional resonance ring false.

It doesn't help that the performances are universally bland, or that first time director Troy Nixey doesn't have enough of a sense of style or grasp on how to generate suspense to make up for those shortcomings. I did like the pre-title sequence, sure to elicit squirms among those with a fear of dentistry gone wrong. The title sequence itself, which feels like a blend of Saul Bass and Edward Gorey, bolstered by a great retro score that recalls Bernard Herrman, is pretty darn impressive, too. But the movie never quite rises to those heights again. 2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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