Tuesday, January 17, 2012

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)

Another week, another horror movie remake.

Seriously though, as I hope to have established in previous reviews (notably my recent review of Fright Night [2011]), I work hard to assess remakes on a case-by-case basis rather than simply trashing all of them, out-of-hand. 

Such a measured approach is the only way to prevent  errors of critical judgment in an age when Hollywood feels that every horror film should carry name brand identification and the possibility of franchise-a-fication. 

All these (seemingly endless...) remakes exist for a reason: because it is less risky to market a tested title than a fresh one.  But the crux of the matter is that some remakes are indeed better than others....and even downright good  They should be lauded for that achievement, not dismissed because they part of -- as a whole -- a mangy breed.  In the past, I have enjoyed and appreciated such remakes such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre  (2003), Dawn of the Dead (2004), and The Ring (2002).

So I'm not a remake hater just for the sake of it. 

Nonetheless, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2011) just ain't one of the good ones.  It not only fails to understand why the original version of the material scared us as children, it fails to make much internal sense.  It's a double failure, then, first as re-imagination, and then, additionally, as an original work.

Co-written by one of my genre heroes, Guillermo Del Toro, and directed by Troy Nixey, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2011) is an elaborate remake of a 1973 TV movie of the same name.  You can read my review of that film here, which I posted a second time on the day last year the remake was released.  John Newland directed the original made-for-tv film, and it starred Kim Darby. 

The meat of my review of the original establishes that Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is:

"...essentially the tale of a woman trapped in an unhappy and lonely marriage...and slowly but surely losing her grasp on reality (see also: Something Evil).

Sally's husband is mostly absent, and treats her as though she's a slow-witted child. All Alex cares about is that she's the "perfect hostess" for a dinner party, and the film functions literally as a metaphor of an unhappy marital relationship. Little things - literally, little monsters - keep getting in the way of the relationship, driving a wedge between the couple.

The terrifying notion at the heart of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is the opening of a Pandora's Box, the fear of breaking down a wall and releasing something that can't be put back in its place.

Again, without putting too fine a point on it, there's a psychological equivalent to this Pandora's Box (the fireplace...) in the film too."

The 2011 remake fails so egregiously because it takes a relatively simple and yet resonant tale (as diagrammed in the excerpt above) and then  heaps more and more unnecessary story detail atop it.  

In other words, this movie does what all bad remakes feel the inexplicable need to do: it embellishes and embellishes until a once-sturdy foundation can no longer support the weight of all the new additions.

Consider: the original film concerned a country estate that was impressive, but not colossal or overwhelming, and involved little monsters about whom the audience knew almost nothing.  They were little devils, certainly, and they wanted to drag poor Kim Darby's Sally into a furnace...and perhaps Hell itself. 

That's pretty much everything.

But that simple blueprint is not enough for the re-told story.  In the spirit of Jan De Bont's The Haunting (1999), the reasonably-proportioned country estate of the original has been turned into a goliath mansion of impossible interior decoration and dimension.  This mansion interior is so ornate, so over-sized that it would be difficult to imagine such a place actually existing.  It is a fantasyland castle.  This problem in presentation and tone is exacerbated, in fact, by the film's very first shot.  We open with a CGI view of the mansion exterior in the past, in the 1880s.  The view is abundantly phony, and immediately colors the film as fantasy, rather than as horror.  Reality is absent.

Beyond the fantasyland coloring and dimensions of the mansion in the new Don't Be Afraid of the Dark,  the film slathers on more detail, more exposition, and more background.  The audience receives a lengthy prologue revealing the monsters, the monsters' lair in the furnace, their 19th century victims, and their peculiar need for childrens' teeth.

Later in the film, the star's protagonist, Kim (Katie Holmes) visits a library and a special collection that explains the rest of the monsters' story.  The creatures are historical "fairies" who require children and their teeth to replenish their dwindled numbers.  We see artwork of the monsters, and learn of their interactions with the historical papacy in Europe.  The only thing we don't get is a specimen for our own personal dissection.

All of these informational, spoon-fed touches are absolutely antithetical to the generation of suspense and terror in horror cinema.  A good general rule of thumb in horror is that the less we know about certain elements of a narrative (namely what the monsters are, and what, precisely they want), the more successful the film is.   Horror rests in not-knowing, in ambiguity.  Why? Because that's the essence of human life.  We don't always understand why fate chooses us to suffer, or why bad things -- such as a car crash, or diagnosis of cancer -- occur.  The good horror movies reflect such real life ambiguity by not sharing absolutely everything about their menace, whether that menace is Michael  "The Shape" Myers, the birds of Bodega Bay, or the xenomorph in Alien (1979). 

Mystery enhances horror; knowledge diminishes it.

Conceptually, this remake just never surpasses this needy, continuous desire to make everything bigger, more elaborate, and more-spelled-out than the original. If you look at such classics as Psycho, Halloween and The Blair Witch Project, you understand the fallacy of such thinking.  We don't require impossible interior decoration to be scared.  We don't have to know the 'why' of a monster's behavior, either.

But I should be absolutely clear about this fact: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark doesn't even work on its own terms; even if you don't take the original into consideration.  The problem is sloppy writing.  The story just doesn't hold together, and the film will have you screaming over its multitudinous oversights and missed opportunities.

For instance, late in the film, the young heroine, Sally (Bailee Madison), is trapped in a dark library with the rampaging monsters.  She battles them valiantly, while outside the library, the dinner guests of her father, Alex (Guy Pearce) try to break in and rescue her. 

At this point in the narrative, everyone believes Sally is merely a disturbed or troubled child, and that the monsters are figments of her troubled imagination.

Eventually, the dinner guests break into the library, but not before Sally crushes one of the creatures against a library book shelf.  We see a severed arm fall to the floor as the monsters scurry away into darkness.  Instead of showcasing this rather dramatic evidence of her questionable story about monsters, Sally proffers a blurry photo, which is never revealed to the audience. 

So why doesn't Sally show the disbelieving adults, including her father, the severed arm? 

Incontrovertible proof of monsters would have rather niftily supported the child's case at this juncture.  You can be damn sure that if I were trying to make people believe I had seen a monster, I'd be waving around that severed arm to the high heavens.

This is only one problem of internal logic and consistency.  Another involves the monsters themselves.  Throughout the film, there are perhaps a half-dozen of them.  Just a handful.  But then suddenly -- and conveniently in time for the over-the-top climax -- there are literally dozens.  Where did the rest come from?  Where were they hiding during the rest of the film?  Lounging in the underworld?  If your population's survival depends on accomplishing one task, such as stealing a child, do you leave the bulk of your army languishing in the furnace until the last minute?

And if the purpose of stealing Sally and dragging her down into the furnace is indeed to replenish the monsters' dwindled numbers, then how the heck did there get to be so many of these hobgoblins down there in the first place?  The surfeit of monsters in the climax undercuts the monster's established motivation: the desperate need to reproduce.   By elaborating so fully about the monsters and their needs, the movie writes itself into a corner.  When suddenly a dozen monsters appear, it doesn't ring true; it smacks of gimmickry.

Thirdly, the finale of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark sees a character dragged down into the furnace; down, down underground, into a seemingly endless (but navigable...) tunnel of dirt, clay and earth.  In the original TV movie, Sally was dragged down into the furnace when nobody else was nearby...so no one saw where she went and could rescue her.  She just...disappeared.  Her husband might easily have believed she had left him; that she had run away.

But here, two characters witness a family member dragged down into the hole, and do absolutely nothing in terms of follow-up.  In this day and age, the police would surely have excavators and work crews ripping up that basement to rescue the missing citizen in short order. 

Why doesn't Alex call the local fire crew and report that one of his family members has fallen down a deep hole, and that he requires assistance rescuing her? 

Seriously, would you leave a loved one down in a hole, and make no attempt to rescue him or her, especially if he/she was alive (and kicking...) when falling in?  I realize, of course,  that Alex can't immediately follow the missing family member down the hole himself, because he has another family member to look after, and he may consider the danger from the monsters far from over.  But he could drive away, make a cell phone call, drop off the family member, thenand go back and save the missing person from the well.  It makes absolutely no sense that this doesn't occur.  This is  yet another example of embellishing a story to the point that it can't stand up on its own.

Grievous errors of internal consistency and believability occur again and again in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.  A groundskeeper,  Mr. Harris, fights off the monsters about mid-way through the film.  They get into his toolbox and go at him with scissors, a utility knife, and other deadly implements.  He manages to escape, climb the basement stairs, and seek help from Sally and the housekeeper.  He still has scissors jutting out of his shoulder

Well -- incredibly -- the police, and Sally's Dad write off all of this carnage as a "work accident."  Really?  Scissors jutting out of the neck? Bloody cuts all over the man's body? 

And it was a workplace accident?  

Boy do I hate it when horror movies pull this shit, one of the dumbest of all genre movie tropes.  Nobody in their right mind would believe the attack was an "accident," but all the characters in the film automatically assume the unbelievable instead of the patently obvious.

Another flaw worth mentioning:  Alex and Kim have been re-fitting and restoring this historic mansion for months. They have sunk their financial fortune into this task.  There are groundskeepers and workers all over the premises, working around the clock for a photo-shoot in Architectural Digest.

You'd assume the couple has actually seen the original blueprints of the home if they are so enmeshed in an authentic restoration process, right?  Yet, a little girl, Sally, wanders onto the premises and on her second day there discovers a heretofore unknown basement!   Something architects, landscapers, painters, and historians all missed.  Again, all sense of reality just crumbles, and horror must possess a level of reality before layering on the scares.

Then, of course, there are flaws here originating from the fact that the remake attempts to be "faithful" to the original in some  misguided way.  In the climax of the original TV film, for instance, Sally utilized the flash of a polaroid camera to try to injure the photo-sensitive beasts.  At that point in history (the 1970s), polaroid cameras were commonplace, so the idea was pretty clever.  Sally used what was on hand to inventively attempt to save herself. 

In the remake, Sally's Dad is a collector of polaroid cameras (!) so that there happens to be one on hand to fight the ghouls; one which possesses seemingly endless flash capacity.  But here, the polaroid is such a damn stupid thing to use. If you were Sally, in this film, would you decide to use the ammo-limited Polaroid camera to fight these light-sensitive monsters, or would you pick up a flashlight ,which projects a steady stream of light and is pretty unlimited in terms of duration, assuming new batteries? 

Of course Sally keeps snapping pictures with the camera...instead of acting logically and using the flashlight.  Again, contextually-speaking, the polaroid made sense in the original.  It was an inventive weapon of last resort.  But it's resurrected here in a context that is nonsensical.

Finally, the ending of the new Don't Be Afraid of the Dark doesn't make sense in terms of the background story the characters have been told about the monsters.  The audience has specifically been notified that the fairies want to take children to replenish their small numbers.  At the end of the film, the monsters abduct somebody, but it isn't a child, and add her to their ranks.  She is transformed into a monster (off-screen).   How does this work, precisely?  Aren't kids the the magic bullet?   Why bother to laboriously explain the rules of these monsters' existnece, if your movie isn't even going to stick to them?

All of these problems established, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is impressive in a few regards.  The movie boasts a humdinger of a jump scare involving a monster underneath Sally's bed covers.  Alas, if you've watched the film's trailer, you've already seen this bracing moment.  It's a major plot point -- the reveal of the monster -- and the impact of it is utterly ruined by the preview trailer.  I can't blame this issue on the film makers, but they must have surely been disappointed to see their big "boo!" moment ruined by advance advertisements.

Still, the monsters have been (masterfully) designed with a faithful eye towards the original creatures.  The gnomes/trolls are much more convincing and real here, and are genuinely scary in movement and look.  The wee beasts scurry around, and are truly malevolent, hateful little things.  You come to fear them.  And if you look closely at their faces...they share visages with their TV-movie counterparts.

Also, I can readily detect how this update attempts to craft a new and meaningful story about a child's alienation from parents, rather than the original's commentary on spousal alienation.  Little Sally is not really wanted by her mother or father, and is shifted about from house-to-house with little thought.  She is warned to be "gluten free" and take her "Adderall," dialogue points which convey the idea that her parents don't want to be bothered with her. 

 Just take your behavior-modification medicine, and shut up. 

Given this leitmotif, Sally's bed in the impossibly ornate mansion is represented as a kind of gilded, golden cage, and that's the point.  The child possesses everything (material) a kid could want, except love and affection.  So when those monsters tell Sally that "they [meaning her parents] don't want you, but we do," the line carries some resonance and power.   We all want to be with people who love us.  The monsters manipulate Sally at first to make her believe they care for her, and the attempted corruption of a child is indeed frightening.

I suspect this element of the film explains Del Toro's involvement.  He has almost universally featured children in his films and always evidenced a dramatic sensitivity towards a child's point of view.  The same is true here.  The jump scare I mentioned above works so well because it involves a universal dread.  As children, we all imagined strange worlds beneath our bedtime blankets. Sally explores one such world here, and it is monstrous, nightmarish and recognizable to our collective subconscious.

Yet even the conceit of a "lonely child's world" is carried out unevenly, as Sally is shunted to the periphery, and Kim becomes the main character.  Does she have the mettle to be a Mother?  What about her own tough childhood?   These new ideas are half-developed, and the final resolution of the story is not nearly as powerful as it should be because the movie spends so little time developing the growing bond between Kim and Sally.  The real question to consider: is this Sally's story, or is it Kim's?  The movie doesn't ever truly decide.  If this were a legitimate fairy tale, Sally would likely end up with the beasts in the furnace, finally finding her sense of "belonging" there which would serve as a lesson to all parents who neglect their children.  You either care for your kids and give them attention...or they could end up a monster.

A shame this movie doesn't have the gumption to follow through with its theme, and go in that unsettling direction.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark showcases dramatically all the common fallacies of modern horror remakes. It girds a simple story with too many bells and whistles, and it plays it safe in terms of its final act, sparing the child and spoiling the story.

Embellishing isn't necessarily improving, and the new Don't Be Afraid of the Dark gets so big and fat, it forgets totell a story that makes sense, or that is capable of truly disturbing our slumber.  

The original 1973 telemovie did so much more with so much less.

7 comments:

  1. Wow, I don't have much to say because I'm in total agreement you. The bit about the arm drove me bonkers. I really disappointed in the film overall.

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  2. Hi Jane:

    I'm disappointed too. It's been a while since I've seen a horror movie featuring so many overt lapses in internal consistency. It renders the film something of a disaster. The new Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is beautiful on the outside...and absolute junk on the inside. A shame. It didn't need to be that way.

    Great comment!

    best,
    John

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  3. Coupla things:

    del Toro could probably have used an editor or a re-write to tighten things up a bit. Horror seems better when its sparse.

    My first thought was that the budget must've been bloated but after looking at the numbers, that just didn't make sense. It only made $24mm and it's a mostly-small studio. In fact, I think they're hanging on by a thread. If only 'Drive' had done better...

    Again, I believe this movie should've been shopped to ScreenGems or another niche group under a larger umbrella. Marketing might've been better and perhaps shown less leg in the previews. Those things are always production decisions and it probably pained the director to no end. That's the biz, though.

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  4. Hi Phil:

    Terrific comment.

    The basic problem is the one you insightfully tagged: the script needed a rewrite. The movie doesn't hold together in a story sense. There are too many things that don't make logical sense, and the story's theme about children isn't carried through in the finale (as I wrote above).

    Secondly, a different edit would have done wonders. Cut out the severed arm, for instance, and that particular moment would have played out much more dramatically, and with less confusion.

    I agree with you that horror is better when it is sparse. We don't need all the embellishment (as the original proves nicely, as counterpoint).

    Onto the inside baseball. Regarding the budget, the point seems to be that whatever the cost of the film, it was spent in the wrong arenas: buttressing up the movie with unnecessarily elaborate interiors, matte painting and the hiring of A-actors (Holmes and Pearce) for roles that didn't really require them. The management of the project seems wrong, if you ask me. I do think the CGI creature work paid off. The creatures are stunning and effective.

    I'm sure the reveal of the monsters in the preview did pain the director to no end. A very poor marketing decision, and it robs the film of one of its most genuinely effective moments.

    Excellent thoughts here...

    warmest regards,
    John

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  5. Anonymous3:04 PM

    John your review was 100% on the mark correct. Regarding the original 1973 tv movie, I was fortunate enough, as a young boy in the early '70s, to have parents that let me stay up passed my bedtime to watch many such first-run network tv-move debuts with them. I will always remember seeing NIGHT GALLERY(pilot) in 1969, CROWHAVEN FARM in 1970, DUEL in 1971, SOMETHING EVIL in 1972, NIGHT STALKER in 1972, NIGHT STRANGLER in 1973, DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK in 1973 and of course the many COLUMBO tv-movies too. I never had any nightmares, just many good childhood memories.

    SGB

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  6. Thanks for the fine review and heads up, John. It's too bad when a remake fails so completely. BTW, I'd add to that list of remakes that do work, Matt Reeves' 'Let Me In' (from Tomas Alfredson's 'Let the Right One In' 2008).

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  7. Hi SGB and Le0pard13:

    SGB: You bring up some great memories from those terrific 1970s TV movies. I'm a fan of all those productions as well. They live and resonate in the memory. I wonder if the same will be true for the movie version of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark? I guess time will tell...

    Le0pard13: I'm so glad you mentioned Let Me In. I've heard wonderful things about that remake, but have not yet watched it. I really need to see it.

    As for this remake, you really won't be missing much by giving it a pass...

    Great comments!

    John

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