Don’t Be Afraid in the Dark opens in theaters today. Hope you west coast and inland fans get to enjoy it. We’ll be holing up for the impending apocalypse.
Introverted Sally Hurst (Bailee Madison) has just moved in with her father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) when she realizes that their sprawling estate holds its fair share of secrets. Descending to the depths of the house, Sally gains access to a secret lower level that has lain undisturbed for nearly a century, when the original builder vanished without a trace. When Sally accidentally opens a gateway that kept the long hidden creatures locked up tight, she realizes that in order to prevent them from destroying her family she must convince her skeptical father than monsters really exist.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is the big screen remake of a 1973 made-for-television movie. While FGSG isn’t generally thrilled with remakes, this particular title could use a modern update. The concept of mysterious voices in the blackness of an ash pit is scary and solid. A bigger budget and current talent can take advantage of the opportunity to retell the tale and find an audience in a new generation of viewers.
From the first moments of this film, Guillermo Del Toro‘s fingerprints are all over it. His hand is seen in the setting of the old mansion with its forest murals and doors shaped as trees, the bizarre creature designs and allusions to folklore, the environments of overgrown gardens and faery circles of mushrooms and dusty illustrated journals depicting children in monstrous peril. Despite his deep involvement, Del Toro produced this film and handed direction duties over to Troy Nixey. The result is a blend of styles. Nixey’s characters are not painted in the broad strokes of Pan’s Labyrinth or Hellboy, but camera angles and shot composition closely match with Del Toro’s work. For example, overhead shots featuring the intricate details of the setting as foreground to the character’s actions below. However, not all of these pieces come together. Marco Beltrami‘s rich orchestral score, so well suited to the bold and dramatic actions of films like Hellboy, becomes overbearing at times in this film with more intimate, small scale actions.
One interesting change from the original is the split of our main protagonist, a woman named Sally, into two characters. An 11-year old girl and the woman who may become her step-mother. Bailee Madison‘s young Sally is really the heart of this film and Madison portrays her as a sad child trying to come to terms with family strife and feeling unwanted by both of her parents. (Not to mention the monster problem.) Giving Sally all these layers helps the viewer understand why she would long for escape and keep big secrets from her family. The character is well written and Madison plays her with maturity. She is especially strong in the first half of the film when she is clearly the center of the plot. As the focus shifts from her character to Katie Holmes‘s Kim in the last act, Sally has less to do aside from scream and act scared (though she does that well also).
This shift isn’t entirely unwelcome. Katie Holmes takes an excellent turn here as Kim. Starting the story as the grudging evil step-fiance, her character becomes more rich and interesting as she is slowly won over to Sally’s side and tries to save her from the house. As Kim becomes more complex, Holmes’s portrayal reveals more subtlety and emotional range. I’ll confess I’m not a fan of Holmes’ work elsewhere, but in this role, she becomes more than a pretty face and shows some real growth as an actress. We could posit about the cause of this change but it’s probably better to just enjoy the performance and let it ride.
For many, this film will succeed or fail on the fright factor of its monsters. The trailer reveals far too much, but we’ll do you the benefit of leaving their appearance a mystery in this review. It’s no spoiler to say that the monsters are tiny malevolent creatures. (Diverging from the source material a bit, they associate them with the faery legends. If you’re thinking Tinkerbell, you haven’t done your homework.) They use weapons and large numbers to swarm and overwhelm their much bigger prey. The creatures work some of the time and that’s the problem. Scenes where they lurk in shadow, stay out of focus and attack from darkness in a flurry of small cuts are effective and creepy. Scenes where they are seen clearly lit for too long or in close-up jump scares don’t work as well. The CGI is better than the crap we’re conditioned to expect, but it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. This also a tough creature to sell. Many viewers will have trouble accepting that little dudes in your fireplace are supposed to be scary. Our screening audience had mixed reactions. There were definitely some laughs and noises of disbelief when the creatures appeared. Fully lit attacks may remind some of the Lilliputians from Gulliver’s Travels more than vicious imps. In the end, you either roll with the monsters or you don’t. That’s going to heavily inform your reaction to this film.
We’ve said it before, but bad advertising can really kill a film. The trailers for this film do it no justice. They show so much that you pretty much know exactly what the creatures look like, what they’re going to do, and where the finale is going before you set foot into a theater. And while we all agree that giving no hint about the monster would also have been a mistake, less would have been more in this case. Avoid if you still can.
Does it pass the Bechdel?
Yes. This film truly pivots on the relationship between Sally and Kim. How they turn from grudging companions to earnest friends to a caring and protective mother and daughter. Though the threat of monsters pushes them together over a short time, the relationship they develop doesn’t seem contrived.
Would we Recommend?
StayFrosty – I would recommend it to Guillermo del Toro fans, because they are the most likely to understand and enjoy it, or at least be willing to go with it. I think fans of mythology and people who are interested in a different kind of villain will find this interesting. But I can’t throw a whole-hearted recommendation behind this one. I love del Toro and mythology, and I couldn’t get completely behind this movie. Mainly this had to do with the monsters – I enjoyed them when they weren’t fully known and still hiding in the shadows, but once they were out there in full, I had some trouble with it. Loved the look of the film though, it’s just gorgeous.
Crowbait – Also a fan of Del Toro, I enjoyed the film. I worry about it though. As a horror film the evil gremlins must be a an important part of the story and they will seem out of place to many viewers with their odd whispering and strange motivations. I want to see this film succeed but I worry that it won’t get the audience it deserves. I’m eager to see more work from Troy Nixey but poor box office here could limit him.
Jenny Dreadful – I’m a bit at odds with my good friends here as I think it’s a significantly better film than they do. Fans of the original may protest, but I feel it’s a big improvement on the source material. I’m a proud remake curmudgeon, but I think that story deserved a second chance. Fans of classic supernatural horror may enjoy this. The setting, atmosphere and acting is top-notch. You’ve got to be willing to roll with fireplace goblins though. Seriously.
I agree that the film’s success could be in danger, but I am actually more concerned about the strange middle-place the subject matter occupies than the villains. It seems like a good gateway film to get kids into the horror scene, but the R-rating shuts them out and some scenes are probably too scary. Seasoned horror fans, however, won’t get the thrills they’re looking for either. I’m not one to support forcing material into a PG-13 box, but the profits would probably be better. Let’s wait and see. Del Toro and imps, I’ve got my fingers crossed for you.