Monday, September 12, 2011

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark / **½ (R)

Sally: Bailee Madison
Kim: Katie Holmes
Alex: Guy Pearce
Harris: Jack Thompson
Mrs. Underhill: Julia Blake

FilmDistrict and Miramax present a film directed by Troy Nixey. Written by Guillermo del Toro & Matthew Robbins. Based on the 1973 teleplay by Nigel McKeand. Running time: 99 min. Rated R (for violence and terror).

When you title a horror movie “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”, aren’t you sending a mixed message? Of course, the filmmakers want you to be afraid of the dark, and they’re willing to take a swing at a childhood tradition to scare you in a way that makes you glad you never saw anything like this as a child.

“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is based on a made for television movie from 1974, but this version is dipped in the mind of Guillermo del Toro, the man behind such visionary horror fantasies as “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Cronos”. It imagines the Tooth Fairy legend in a way that would make anyone hope never to be visited by such a monster. This isn’t the first time Del Toro has dabbled in the Tooth Fairy legend. He showed us some pretty frightening tooth fairies in the comic book movie “Hellboy II: The Golden Army”. In that movie, they were little flying things that were all teeth and could eat through a city block in a swarm. The Tooth Fairies in this movie are a little more sinister, but no less dangerous.

As with many horror movies, everything is centered on an old estate. We get a disturbing opening sequence that takes place long ago. We know this because the horse drawn carriage and costume clothing tells us so. We learn that the owner of the estate is giving teeth to something that lives in the furnace. They have his son, and he’ll stop at nothing to collect more teeth and get the boy back. Guess what? That doesn’t happen.

Skip to the present, when we meet Kim (Katie Holmes, “Batman Begins”) and Alex (Guy Pearse, “Memento”). They are refurbishing the old house, trying to make names for themselves in a respected architectural magazine. Alex has a daughter from a previous marriage, Sally (Bailee Madison, “Just Go With It”), who comes to live with them as they finish their project. As is always the case with horror movies, there is tension between Sally and the surrogate mother, Kim.

Eventually Sally, in her attempts to escape her fractured family situation, discovers the basement with the furnace. She hears voices calling her from the furnace. Soon we see something more disturbing coming out of the furnace trying to get to Sally in her room. They—yes, as in many—don’t like the light. Hence, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”.

What this movie has in spades is creepy atmosphere. From the ancient house, to the isolated garden, from the dark dreary basement, to the huge oak tree by the driveway, this is a classic haunted house. When I said the story was dipped in the mind of Del Toro, I meant down to the production design. Directed by comic book artist Troy Nixey, it’s obvious that Del Toro’s work was studied intently for this production. The garden is a great example, looking more like a set than a real garden; it’s like something out of a fairy tale rather than reality.

The tooth fairies themselves also look like typical Del Toro monsters. They’re small and quick. They’re realized as fully formed beings, with lungs and other anatomy beneath their skin. Despite the horror they bring, you can almost understand their function in the world. They’re also given a good backstory that Del Toro and co-screenwriter Matthew Robbins don’t oversell. They squeeze it in subtly and let the audience connect some of the dots.

What doesn’t work with the movie is also the screenwriting. By the end of the movie these tooth fairies are displaying control over their environment that suggests great intelligence and amazing strength in their numbers. Why, I must ask, did they not begin their campaign to capture Sally with such tactics? Had they used their cleverness and numbers early on, they would’ve never been suspected of even existing. They could’ve snatched her, and no one would know what had happened to her. Instead, we’re left with a wholly unsatisfying ending to a horror movie that had surprising promise.

I also disliked the tag on scene that closes the movie. We hear the fairies’ voices again, but there is another voice we recognize added to them. The inclusion of this other voice makes no sense to me. It’s disturbing, but I can’t come up with a good meaning for it. Perhaps, someone will explain it to me.

For some, the creepy atmosphere and measured direction of the material may be enough to make this horror flick worth watching. I can’t get past the lapse in logic presented by the monsters’ actions. It would’ve been so easy for them to achieve their goals had they attacked in full force from the very beginning. Of course, that would’ve made for a very short movie. I suppose sometimes we need to abandon reason and just focus on the fright of horror. 

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