Friday, September 16, 2011

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK            D+                  
USA  Australia  Mexico  (99 mi)  2010  d:  Troy Nixey

Another gruesome and sadistic children’s story from the screenwriting pen and production team of Guillermo del Toro, where this is a remake of an earlier Made-for-TV movie in 1973 by the same name, but altering which character initially sees the strange little creatures, from the wife in the original to an impressionable young daughter here.  But we’ve seen this before, as this is just a riff on previously made films that were much better than this one, PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006) and the animated CORALINE (2009).  In each, an unhappy young girl whose parents are too busy or preoccupied finds a portal to another world, where the special effect of the picture is blending the magical Surrealistic elements of the other world into her own, so at times she can’t tell the difference, which is the real horror.  In this film, there is no alternate or parallel world, as the monsters already exist in the present, but hide in the shadows and the darkness, scurrying creatures that whisper their thoughts, tiny gremlins, which are a kind of lurking presence of evil that slowly infiltrate reality.  They’ve been there all along, but hidden away waiting for someone to release them, where strangely enough they have to get to know you first, as they take advantage of your weakness and vulnerabilities.  Architect Guy Pearce and his interior decorating fiancé Katie Holmes as Kim are redecorating a giant historical mansion in Rhode Island (birthplace of fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft), where they are so preoccupied with the plans for restoration and getting on the cover of Architectural Digest that they completely overlook their neglect of his young 10-year old child, Sally (Bailee Madison), who has just been shipped from her mother, claiming she’s been given away by her mother to live with her father.  Her Dad overlooks every strange child remark as nothing more than a minor distraction in his up and coming career, while Kim feels a bit awkward, as this is not her daughter, but she’s obviously troubled by what appears to be a growing fear and trauma developing inside Sally who has constant nightmares. 

It begins with an exploration of the grounds, much of it covered in overgrown bush, where Sally discovers a hidden basement, but is quickly shooed away by the groundskeeper who denies its presence.  Further exploration reveals a secret underground hideaway with a cast iron furnace with a front grill where creatures inside appear to be speaking to Sally, but as no one else hears, she keeps it her secret, something she has all to herself.  Preying on the vulnerabilities of a child, the creatures continue speaking to her by prying into her subconscious, visiting her room through the ventilation ducts, beckoning her to be a friend and come down and play, suggesting her parents don’t want her, but they do.  Friendless and alone, this appeals to her more than the world of adults who seem a million miles away and pay her no attention.  At first, they appear to be just little white eyes staring out of the dark, but eventually we see them scurrying around the floors and walls, no bigger than the size of an average frog, where they scatter like cockroaches the instant someone shines a light on them.  It’s not long before Sally senses their dark and evil intentions, as they attack in groups, like jackals baring their sharp teeth, often carrying sharp cutting objects in their teeth, but when she attempts to describe what’s happening, no one believes her—that is, until the groundskeeper has an unfortunate accident in the basement leaving him nearly dead, repeatedly bludgeoned and covered in blood.  The audience sees the attack, but humans have a hard time grasping what he’s describing, finding it some kind of horrible nightmare that he likely suffers after such an ordeal.  Kim, on the other hand, asks him for details, which leads to a search in the special section in the library, where the artist that previously owned the estate they are rehabbing has some strange and curious drawings unseen by the public, attributed to a developing paranoia or hallucination stage just before he died.  These drawings match the description Sally has been describing.  This is a common touch in werewolf or vampire movies, where ancient texts from neglected, cobweb covered bookcases have vivid drawings and descriptions that perfectly describe the odd occurrences in the neighborhood that can’t otherwise be rationally explained.         

While this film has one of the more graphically brutal openings, where nothing is left to the imagination, the real disappointment lies in the pathetically horrible character development, as Pearce couldn’t be more of a blithering idiot, as self-centered and oblivious as anyone in recent memory, which may be an oddly amusing caricature of the egotistical and overcontrolling Tom Cruise, now that I think of it, who is, of course, married to Katie Holmes, all but ruining Katie’s career, as evidenced by this turkey.  Katie never looked worse in a motion picture, and one wonders what attracted her to this dark material, as it is punishingly grotesque in its treatment of children.  One theory is it reveals the horrific effects of using psychiatric medication for children, a cardinal sin for Scientologists, where here Katie’s character transforms into a guardian angel, as she is the only one who listens to the over medicated and traumatized child, but even then, she doesn’t truly understand the urgency of the situation.  Once she finds out the truth of what ghoulish horror has been unleashed inside the house, and discovers the origins to be more than a hundred years ago, one might think this would be cause for panic, but instead the adults dawdle around as if preparing to go on vacation, all but evaporating any hint of suspense.  The little creatures themselves are creepy in the way they scurry around and resemble rodents, but they’re not much in the way of memorable looking monsters, showing little imagination in that department, where the film instead is one long argument against the over reliance of computer graphics, which take the life out of the picture.  What’s more interesting are the conversations the creatures have, as they speak in a kind of groupthink, imposing a psychological dread through their voices onto their chosen target, using their power of intuitiveness, reaching into the minds of others, yet despite living in a seemingly timeless state, individually they appear to have the mental state of children, where by the end, one wonders if this isn’t really all happening as an evolving Grimm Brothers Fairy tale story that is visualized while being read to a terrified child, as so much appears to be seen through a child’s eyes.  In what is perhaps the most reprehensible moral outrage of the entire picture, one doesn’t get the sense that anyone has learned anything from this experience, as instead of exterminating the pests, getting rid of them once and for all, they simply clear out and leave them for the next unsuspecting buyers.   

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