“I Don’t Like It Here.”

Here’s the thing: when you go to see a scary movie in theater, you expect it to be, you know, scary.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark certainly isn’t the worst movie I’ve ever seen in theater. But as a horror film, it totally fails. And as a dark fantasy . . .

. . . yeah, it’s really not effective at that, either.

SUMMARY: 

Sally (Bailee Madison) is sent to live with her father, Alex (Guy Pearce), and his girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes), in this giant, old-school, gothic-esque house. Unfortunately, other things live there too, things that hide in the shadows and want to get their hands on sweet little Sally.

NOTES:

1. I had an okay time watching this movie . . . like, I wasn’t ready to walk out or anything . . . but that’s mostly because I was hanging out with my friend Brian, and we were having fun whispering to each other about the stupid shit that made no sense. (I feel it’s important to point out that I usually do not talk much—or at all—while at the theater. But I couldn’t feel guilty here. Eight people, including Brian and I, bought tickets for the early matinee showing of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Four of them walked out halfway during the film, and the remaining two were talking louder than we were, like, openly just making the most random fucking comments. At least we were whispering.)

So, when I left the theater, I was, like, yeah . . . that wasn’t so good. But it was adequate, I guess. I mean, I’ve seen way crappier horror films before. But then I thought more about what worked and what didn’t, and I realized that the “what didn’t” section was getting so high it was about to topple over.

2. Okay, so for instance: even people who didn’t like this movie have been tripping over themselves to argue that it, at least, has a great, haunting atmosphere. I do not agree.

What it does have is a great setting. The house . . . that house is gorgeous. The big, ornate, iron gates and the creepy artwork and the dual staircases—oh, I love those staircases, my God. That house was built to shelter memories and ghosts.

And the outside is beautiful, too, right down to the symbolic koi pond. The photography in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is just so dark and lovely . . . but setting and cinematography are not the only ingredients in creating atmosphere. Everything in this movie, it’s only creepy looking. It’s not actually creepy itself. There is no tension in the work, no terror or suspense or dread.

Pan’s Labyrinth, that film has atmosphere in spades. El Orfanato, too, is immensely haunting . . . but this movie . . . look, if you’re going to make such a big deal slapping Guillermo del Toro’s name on the project, I expect a gorgeous, tense, dark fantasy. You’re supposed to feel something when you watch it—that’s atmosphere. Mood is involved. But this movie, there are so many problems in the story and how it develops that any tension the film had going for it is lost. Like I said, it’s pretty enough . . . but I was never nervous, never haunted, never moved.

3. One of my larger problems with this movie? The creatures.

If only this were the Bad Guy. If only.

I won’t say what the creatures are before the Spoiler Section, but I will say that they’re ridiculous, and I couldn’t take them seriously at all. Once you’ve actually seen them—and it happens earlier in the film than you’d expect—they lose any small amount of creepiness that they actually had going for them. It doesn’t help that they have to be the most ineffectual monsters in a horror movie ever known to man. How many chances do they have to get Sally? 85,000? A big, big issue with this movie is just how repetitive the story is. (Even some of the shots are a bit repetitive.) Here’s how Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark goes for well over half the movie:

Creatures do something bad. Sally survives. Dad ignores the problem. Stepmom is concerned. Creatures do something bad. Sally survives. Dad ignores the problem. Stepmom is concerned. Creatures do something—WAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

If I was actually scared of these monsters, maybe, maybe I could forgive some of the tedious storyline. But these creatures are not scary; they’re laughable. I was honestly trying not to giggle at them.

4. The only part that did make me cringe was the opening scene . . . and that’s mostly because I’ve got a bit of a teeth hangup, honestly. I mean, it is kind of creepy, I guess, but the actor involved is less chewing than he is gnashing on the scenery, and everything about it . . .  the other character’s reactions, the way the scene’s lit, the dialogue of all parties involved . . . it all kind of screams trying too hard for me. But, hey, at least it’s trying. That’s more than I can say for a lot of this film.

5. As far as acting goes . . . you know, it’s okay.

Guy Pearce

Guy Pearce is getting some bad reviews for his performance in this movie, but I actually think he does the best he can with what is, frankly, a pretty thankless role. Clearly, this isn’t one of his greatest performances ever (Memento!), but I think if you felt even the smallest amount of sympathy for his character in this movie, that’s all due to Guy Pearce. It certainly isn’t written in the role. We’ll be talking about Alex’s approach to parenting later, but . . . yeah. He kind of (totally) sucks.

Katie Holmes

It’s easy to look at Batman Begins and think, Wow, Katie Holmes is a terrible actress, but she isn’t, really. She’s not a great actress, but she’s not a horrible one, either, and I think her performance as Kim in this film is actually pretty good. It’s the first movie I’ve ever seen where I’ve been like . . . hey, Katie Holmes is a grown up now! Admittedly, there is one regrettable incident where she throws on Fierce Face . . . but other than that, I like her here.

Bailee Madison

I think my problems with Sally have more to do with how her character is written than how Bailee Madison acts. I mean, she’s twelve. Unless they’re completely awful, I try not to give child actors too hard of a time. And Madison certainly isn’t awful. She has some moments I really like, some reactions and expressions and sometimes even lack of expressions that work well for the story. I just have a few serious problems with her character, that’s all.

6. Problem one . . . Sally isn’t that interesting.

What do you mean, I'm not interesting? Look at me crawling around with this 80 year old Polaroid in my hands! Of course I'm interesting!

Look, writing kids can be difficult. Sometimes, people make them so innocent that they end up coming off as mildly brain damaged. Other times, they’re so precocious that you want to slap them right across the face. I know I’ve argued this before.

I’m happy to say that Sally isn’t, at least, so ridiculously clever that she comes off as a miniature adult, nor does she act like her brain matter is made up entirely of cotton candy. That’s refreshing. But she also has very little in the way of an actual personality, which I might not mind so much . . . Alex and Kim aren’t chock full of personality themselves . . . but Sally is clearly the protagonist here. She isn’t in every single scene, but she’s in most of them, and you want your lead character to have some kind of distinguishing feature other than being two feet shorter than everyone else in the movie. You should care about her, feel for her, hell, maybe even like her.

But while I feel vaguely sympathetic for the kid due her to crappy family situation . . . I don’t have any sense of this girl as an actual person. She’s just, you know, Little Kid. Intended Victim. Tiny Person That No One Believes.  She’s an archetype, not a character, and I really don’t care that much if she lives or dies.

7. There’s also a problem with age. Bailee Madison is 12, and while I don’t believe they ever state Sally’s exact age, I could never believe anything younger than 9. At best. And maybe nine-year old, alienated little girls would follow a strange voice that no one else can hear and keep it a secret. Kids like magical secrets. They believe in them.

But, here’s the thing: while the creatures tell Sally that they’re her friend (once, they say it once), they’re still using their creepy we’re going to suck the meat off your bones and then use what’s left to make a Jenga structure out of you voice. Maybe a small child might not quite catch on on that nuance, like a five year old or something. But a nine year old? Sally should fucking know better. She needs to be a little younger to make some of her decisions believable. Either that, or she should actually be a touch on the suicidal side. That, I could believe. Why the hell else does she keep wandering around by herself?

8. Of course, that’s nowhere near the most unbelievable thing that happens in this movie. I’ll give more details in the Spoiler Section, but let me just mention that Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark apparently takes place in a world with the most idiotic and unobservant policemen and doctors in the whole universe. Seriously, it’s absolutely ridiculous. There’s this thing that happens to a person, right, and nobody picks up on it . . . nobody. I know that’s pretty vague, but honestly, it’s the kind of thing that you might expect to see in a parody . . . except that you’re supposed to take it seriously here, for some reason.

9. There are huge plot holes in this story. The very, very basic concept of the creatures and what they’re after, that’s totally fine. But then the writers proceed to add, like, three or four other elements to that concept without bothering to, you know, explain any of them. It’s like they just came up with almost every horror movie cliche they could think of and figured, Sure, we’ll just throw these elements in. They make sense in OTHER scary movies. I’m sure they’ll work here, right? Right?

Well, they don’t. And that includes the end. The end might have been kind of neat . . . if there had been any kind of backstory or explanation for it at all.

10.) I find it interesting they cast a kid who could easily play Katie Holmes’s biological child . . . and then went ahead and made her the stepchild.

That being said, I do like some of Kim’s characterization when it comes to her scenes with Sally. I particularly like watching her try to form this, like, instant relationship with the young girl, which is more than a little silly since they’ve only just met. I think sometimes people are so scared or self-conscious about being the Evil Stepmother/Stepfather that they completely overcompensate and feel like they’re a total failure if they aren’t best friends with the child in the first day.

Kim definitely acts like that, and I like watching her try to navigate a relationship with Sally and be responsible, while at the same time clearly not knowing exactly what to do with a new kid in her life. I also like that while she has some past trauma that makes her relate to Sally’s trauma . . . we don’t have to freaking hear about it. This is one case where the lack of exposition actually works for me in this movie. We don’t need the sob story details. The girls have a bond (and a koi pond). That’s enough.

11. When you are going to give exposition, though, it’s never a bad idea to use a cute, awkward, guy librarian with glasses. Admittedly, the All Powerful Librarian is a bit of a cliche . . . but this one wasn’t a woman in her mid-seventies, at least, so that’s a bit different.

If only he’d explained the half dozen plot holes, though, instead of going over things that the audience mostly already knew . . .

Oh well.

12. Of course, Kim has an old school Polaroid camera. Of course she does.

13. Finally, Alex fails as a father, yes, but he also fails as a businessman. How is this even possible? How can he be this useless at everything?

Alex, you completely suck.

To hear more about those plot holes, or to see if Alex survives despite being a total loser, continue onward . . .

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

Okay. The movie begins in the past. A maid fearfully goes to the basement to check on her employer. Unfortunately, there’s a tripwire, and she falls down a few stairs, hitting the ground hard. Only semi-conscious now, her employer, Blackwood, leans over and gibbers a bit. He’s gone crazy because the creatures in the house have stolen his son, and they demand children’s teeth for the boy’s release. Blackwood can’t give them any children’s teeth, sadly, but he has sacrificed quite a number of his own, as well as depriving the maid of hers. The creatures—who we can’t see yet, thankfully—will not eat them, though, and Blackwood goes bye bye. End teaser.

To present day: Sally’s mommy doesn’t want her anymore, so she’s sent to live with Alex instead. Alex doesn’t exactly want her, either, although it’s less because he’s a completely awful human being (for now) and more because he’s hugely invested in his work. He (and interior designer girlfriend Kim) are restoring the Blackwood house that they’re currently living in. Alex has put pretty much all his money into getting on the cover of Architecture’s Digest, or something, so that’s his “excuse” for not paying attention as his little girl is repeatedly traumatized. But more on that later.

For now, Alex is trying to cheer Sally up by steadfastly refusing to acknowledge that she has anything to be depressed about. It’s amazing how this solid parenting strategy doesn’t work out. In the meantime, Sally discovers the secret basement which has been locked up by the groundskeeper, Harris. Harris is super shifty about it and will only say that his grandfather originally boarded the place up because it wasn’t safe for kids, or something. I’m not clear if his grandfather is supposed to be important or not, honestly. There are a lot of problem with Harris’s whole storyline.

Sally soon starts hearing the Creepy Voices, and they tell her to unscrew a furnace grate in the basement. As she’s feeling alienated, this is supposed to be an understandable decision, I guess?  I must have more faith in a child’s intelligence. I mean, seriously, these creatures don’t even pretend to be, like, lost kids or anything. They’re monsters, and they sound like monsters. But go ahead, Sally. You just go ahead and open that grate.

Well, she does, and the little bastards turn out to be evil little tooth fairy things. Here is a close up on the creature, which is pretty creepy looking:

That’s scary, right? Well, sure, when the monster in question is more than an inch tall. Anyone seen the Fear Demon episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Yes. Kind of like that. These fairies/pygmy things are tiny and ridiculous looking, often hefting stolen razor blades that are larger than they are. When they’re shrouded in darkness and just ominously whispering, sure, they’re creepy enough. Their dialogue bothers me a bit . . . you can only hiss things like we want you so many times before it just get old . . . but, you know, things lurking in the dark, it’s kind of a primal fear. I can overlook dialogue and get on board with that.

But once you can see these guys running around, hopping on things and attacking. . . they just look so completely ludicrous that I could not take them seriously at all. I wasn’t covering my mouth in horror while watching Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. I was trying not to laugh.

That’s a bad sign in a horror film.

Especially because these fairy/pixie things pretty much suck at being monsters. They slash the shit out of Kim’s dress, sure, which Alex blames Sally for, of course. (Mind you: Sally’s still cool with them at this point. I mean, she’s kind of scared, but she’s still talking to them and everything, so not scared enough for my tastes.) Then the fairies keep attacking her, with little to no result other than increasing Sally’s terror. Why these creatures don’t just snatch her teeth the very first night they’re released, I’m not sure. They just keep on not killing Sally. It really makes no sense at all.

At one point, Harris, the Creepy Old Groundskeeper, tries to seal the grate up again, and the creatures attack him with a bit more success. He tries to plead with them, saying he kept their secret, but they are not appeased. As far as why Harris kept their secret, you know, what he got in return? Got me, kids. The usual bribe is for money or fame, but he doesn’t appearing to be rolling in dough or paparazzi. He doesn’t seem to have any of his own kids to protect, and there’s never any mention of his family serving the fairy creatures for hundreds of years or something equally ridiculous. He just . . . he somehow knows about the fairies and is kind of serving them but also not serving them and . . . you know what, let’s just move on, shall we?

When Harris stumbles up the stairs, he tells Sally and the housekeeper that he tripped or something. I mean, the man is cut in, like, 35 different places and has screwdrivers and razor blades sticking of his neck and back . . . but sure. He tripped. It’s all a horrible accident.

Well, Harris is suffering from blood loss. He’s probably on automatic denial. I’m sure the police will notice the inconsistencies in that story, or the doctors, or the housekeeper, or . . . really? No one? No one’s going to put two and two together and realize that you don’t trip down the stairs and end up looking like that? Wow. Wow. Okay.

It’s worth mentioning that when Alex and Kim get home and discover what’s happened, Kim is the one to find Sally and attempt to comfort her. Mind you, the cops immediately start talking to Alex, letting him know what’s happened, probably asking him some questions, but . . . okay, parents. Here’s my question for you: you come home from work, and your gardener has been horribly injured and is possibly dying because of some accident at your place. Cops are all around your house, and your only child is nowhere in sight. Do you just continue talking to the cops, or do you go find your child who actually saw the mutilated gardener and make sure she’s okay before anything else?

Anyway. Sally begs to leave, even going so far as to run away, but Alex keeps dismissing her concerns/nightmares/possible hallucinations as simply acting out. They do get a shrink for her at one point, mostly at Kim’s insistence, I believe. But otherwise, whatever. Alex has shit going on. Admittedly, I’m not expecting Alex to believe Sally or anything, but whatever the cause, she’s clearly traumatized. Don’t even want to try Motel 6 for a single night? Alex might be a serious contender for Father of the Year award.

Kim is considerably more disturbed by Sally’s supposed nightmares, and she does some digging. She eventually learns a bit about Blackwood (via the cute, awkward librarian who just knows this shit, I guess) and comes to the conclusion that fairies might, in fact, be real. (I don’t really know how Sally realizes the bad guys are fairies, exactly. I mean, they don’t exactly look like the fairies most kids learn about, and it’s not like they tell her {or us} who they are or where they come from.) Unfortunately, Kim only figures this out on the night of the Big Party, where the Important Dude That Might Change Alex’s Whole Future (Alan Dale) and Other Significant People are coming. Naturally, Alex refuses to leave.

Here’s a smart solution: Kim takes Sally to a Motel Six, or hell, even a Best Western for a night. Because even if they’re both being paranoid crackheads, who wants the child with psychotic delusions to be embarrassing Daddy at seriously important business dinners? That’s right, no one. Sally being there makes no sense to anyone involved.

Here’s what happens instead. Sally and Kim stay. Kim gives Sally her fucking Polaroid, so she can flash the fairies with blinding light if she sees them. (The fairies are scared or hurt by the light . . . although, sometimes, light doesn’t seem to bother them as much as other times. Why? Cause fuck logic, that’s why.) Then Kim spends most of the dinner slowly packing and refusing to come downstairs. You’d think if she was that scared, she’d have Sally stay up there with her, but . . . whatever.

Sally, of course, does run into the fairies. She manages to take a picture of one, but when some of the Other Significant People try to look at it, she snatches it away. The expression on her face is funny as hell . . . like, What the fuck are you doing; that’s not your picture, asshole . . . but . . . shouldn’t she want the adults to see the proof? I don’t really get this.

Later, she gets stuck in the library with a bunch of the fairies. Her screams attract everyone in the house, but the door is locked, and they can’t get to her right away. Sally manages to cut off one of the fairy’s arms with a bookcase (it’s surprisingly badass for a child) before the adults break in and the fairies scamper away. The fairy arm is still on the fucking ground, but for some reason, Sally doesn’t bother to point it out to anyone.

Everyone decides to call it a night. Alex and Kim put Sally to bed. Only after that do they decide to leave the house. Couldn’t have made that decision before Sally was tucked in, oh no. Alex goes to get the car. Kim (still) packs stuff. Sally sleeps.

Then the fairies attack Alex in the garage, knocking him unconscious, and turn the power off in the house. Kim decides for no reason at all to suddenly act like a teen in a slasher movie, leaving sleeping Sally alone to go creep around in the dark and nervously yell, “Alex? Alex?” Like, Alex, is that you? Did you turn off all the lights and decide to start skulking around downstairs? This isn’t funny anymore!

Besides being a horror movie cliche, Kim’s investigation here is completely idiotic. She knows what’s going on. She knows what’s in the house. Even if she doesn’t fully believe it herself yet, she should certainly know that Alex isn’t playing a giant prank on her. Leaving the kid alone and slowly descending the staircase while plaintively calling for her boyfriend is absolutely the dumbest thing she could possibly do.

But do it, she does. The fairies have laid a tripwire for her, and Kim falls just like the maid did in the beginning of the film. And just like the maid, she’s only semi-conscious and unable to move or otherwise defend herself as the fairy/pixie things come at her. Mind you, the tripwire is only set maybe three or four steps up from ground level, and it strikes me a little funny that both women land so identically hard that they’re rendered completely useless, but whatever, that’s not a serious gripe. Anyway, Kim passes out. The fairy things fail to kill either her or Alex while they’re unconscious. Why? Cause, seriously, fuck logic, that’s why.

Sally awakens, all alone, and the fairies come after her again. This time, they get her all the way down to the basement, where they’re trying to drag her through the furnace, presumably so they can eat her in peace. Kim and Alex, now conscious again, both try to save her while fighting off fairy things. Kim gets to her first and manages to free Sally, but she gets trapped in the process. She realizes it, too, and tells Sally to run before she’s quickly sucked through the furnace into the house. This is actually one of the cooler scenes in the whole movie.

Unfortunately, once Alex gets to the basement, Kim pops up again briefly, presumably so that Alex can see what happened to her. (We all know he doesn’t put much faith into what his daughter says, after all.) Then, Kim gets whisked away again. It’s unnecessary and takes away considerably from her “first death” scene, reminding me of that time LOST killed a character off, then improbably brought her back for a minute to do something awesome, then killed her off again, then impossibly brought her back for a minute to needlessly say goodbye to her man, and then finally killed her for good this time. Stupid, is what I’m driving at. Unnecessary and stupid.

Alex grabs Sally and they escape the house. Later, during the daytime, Alex brings Sally back to the house so that Sally can leave a drawing for Kim just inside the front door. They leave, and a mysterious, evil fairy wind blows the drawing down to the basement and into the furnace. And then you hear Evil Kim telling the other fairy creatures that more children will come, and the fairies have all the time in the world, or something.

The End.

Wow. So many gigantic problems things to go over.

Okay, well, first: I was actually a little surprised when Alex survived and Kim didn’t. I figured Alex would die for being a Useless Dad, while Kim would turn into Sally’s New Mom and they could travel around being traumatized together. (Not because this could ever actually legally happen, mind you, but because we already know what this movie thinks about logic.)

But hey, that’s okay. Killing off Kim is a much bolder move than killing off Alex, whose death, I suspect, would have caused people in the audience to start cheering. (Had there been other people in the audience left, that is.) On the other hand, Sally is now stuck with Alex as her only parent. So, one way or another, Sally is screwed.

Also . . . these fairies are so underdeveloped, it’s just awful storytelling. Earlier in the film, Sally finds a tooth (one of the maid’s, I think) and sort of creepily puts it under her pillow. Later, she finds a huge coin there. Now, the coin ends up being some kind of clue for Kim to learn about the pixies, but otherwise, it serves absolutely no purpose except to make this an exceptionally vague “evil tooth fairy movie”. The whole teeth for coins thing is barely even brought up.

Not to mention all of the other questions, like . . . why does light hurt the fairies? Normally, that wouldn’t require an explanation, but since the movie is a bit inconsistent with how much darkness the fairies really need or what kind of light will hurt them in, it wouldn’t be a bad idea. And what the hell are the fairies, anyway? Where do they come from? Are they all just a bunch of dead children? Is Kim now their Dead Fairy Mommy? Why is Kim their Dead Fairy Mommy? Kim’s voiceover is actually a bit creepier than any of the other fairy dialogue in the film, but this “twist” ending still makes no sense at all. Now, Kim’s just evil? Where was that in the backstory? And why do you keep blinding me with the flash of the Polaroid? I’m not the evil fairy. Is this a preemptive strike against the audience members who think your movie kind of sucks?

That’s low, filmmakers. That’s low.

CONCLUSIONS:

Pretty cinematography, but repetitive shots, repetitive plot, and repetitive fairy dialogue. Decent acting all around, but some poorly developed characters and exceptionally incomplete, inconsistent, or just unexplained monster mythology. Laughable monsters all around, really. Watchable enough movie, but fairly bland overall.

MVP:

Katie Holmes

TENTATIVE GRADE:

C

MORAL:

Learn how to parent your child. Honestly. Sure, maybe your kid is nuts. But she’s also clearly terrorized and having psychotic delusions. Take a day off from work, stop letting her wander around the grounds by herself, and actually get her some fucking help. I mean, Jesus. Why is that so hard?

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2 Responses to “I Don’t Like It Here.”

  1. fatpie42 says:

    Guy Pearce is a bloody GREAT actor and he’s proved so on numerous occasions. Similarly Guillermo Del Toro has proved himself to be bloody GREAT monster creator. However, Guillermo Del Toro wasn’t the director. Actors can’t just pull great performances out of the air and monsters don’t instantly look creepy simply by being there. There needs to be a decent story and decent execution and that’s what the director is for. Looks like Troy Nixey isn’t going to be a name to look out for in the future.

  2. Brandon says:

    If you can’t get a good performance out of Guy Pearce, you are a bad director.

    The End.

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