JUNE 26, 2011
They took our cell phones away before Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, which made me regret getting to the theater early so I could get a good seat (I was in the “spillover” theater, which had a lot of empty seats – could have arrived late and been OK) as I had nothing to entertain me while I waited for the movie to start. But it’s probably for the best, because I probably would have just gone into the little aisle on the side of the theater (where no one can see you but you can still see the screen) and started checking Twitter/email while keeping one eye on the flick. Not that it was a terrible film by any means, but it just failed to engage me in any way, and never actually required my full attention - yet the lack of anything else to do ensured that I gave it anyway.
The biggest problem for me was the fact that the movie relied on scaring an audience with two things that almost never really scare me: CGI monsters and kids in danger. The monsters looked terrific, sure, but I never found them the least bit terrifying, especially when they started talking on camera. Creepy whispers coming through the vents – sure, works great. A little walking CGI rat going “We want YOUUUUU!” just makes me laugh, though it was not the intention. They also appear far too frequently in scenes that accomplish nothing besides spooking a character, so they run into the same problem as the Nightmare On Elm Street remake, where the villain loses not only his mystique but also his ability to appear threatening long before the film concludes, because he keeps popping out, seemingly with the intent to cause harm, and then fails to do so.
As for kids in danger, that’s how the movie really lost my interest. There’s a bit where a handyman is working close to the grate where the little things are hiding, and that’s actually suspenseful/scary, because I don’t know for sure that this guy is going to be OK. The little girl, on the other hand? R rating or not, little Sally won’t get more than a scratch on her throughout the entire movie, yet I’d estimate 90% of the movies scares involve the things harassing her, which loses its novelty before the movie is even halfway over. They NEVER go after the live-in housekeeper, any of the anonymous construction guys, Pearce’s business associates, etc – you know, people who might actually get killed, and it’s not until the climax that they ever put her father (Guy Pearce, as welcome as always) and stepmom (Katie Holmes, returning to the horror genre after a long break) in any real harm, but by then it was a bit too late to get me on board. It’d be like if the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park never tried to eat anyone besides Lex. It’s worth noting that the original had no little girl from what I understand (haven’t seen it), with the monsters terrorizing what would be the Holmes character here.
It doesn’t help that there’s no mystery to the movie whatsoever. It could have been kind of fun to wonder if the little girl was just crazy or if there really were little creatures in the walls, but they tell us right off the bat that it’s the latter. Yet Pearce spends the entire movie not even entertaining the notion that she could be telling the truth, which more or less requires him to act like an idiot for most of the runtime. You thought the dad in Orphan was a dolt? At one point the little girl (who looks exactly like Katie Holmes, a casting blunder since their lack of a real family tie is a huge part of the story) manages to squish one of the damn things and cut off its arm, but the plot point is just dropped because it would require Pearce to spring into action instead of continuing to play a guy who just thinks his daughter is having issues.
This also results in a number of wholly useless scenes, such as when a shrink comes over to talk to Sally. Again, we know she’s not crazy, so why waste time having a shrink try to find out what her problem is? And not for nothing, but having the wife of Mr. Scientology in a movie in which shrinks are presented as worthless boobs is slightly off-putting. There’s also a lengthy bit where Pearce has a bunch of business associates over for dinner, with Sally running around with her flash-bulb equipped camera (the light scares the creatures off, of course) and trying to keep the things from causing too much chaos – it’s like a slightly less comical version of the scene from Chamber of Secrets where Harry is trying to stop Dobby from dropping a cake on Vernon’s boss, and also serves little to no narrative function. It’s a decent enough setpiece, sure, but it seems like the sort of extraneous thing a studio would put back in for the DVD and inspire arguments over whether or not it should have been left in the movie, like the motion detector gun sequence in Aliens. But either way, no one would miss it if it was gone.
And that was my issue: the movie wasn’t really interested in telling an interesting story (the origin of the creatures, or even their aversion to light, isn’t explained), only providing scares – and I wasn’t finding it scary. The best jolt scare in the movie is given away in the trailer, and they’re all pretty much the same: the monsters either knock something over or turn off the lights, and then rampage around like less humorous Gremlins until an adult enters the room and they all manage to hide again before being spotted. Plus I didn’t even get what the hell they were taking so long for; we are told that they need a human body to sustain them for a number of years, but if that’s the case why don’t they just kill someone? Why all of the fucking around, tearing up Holmes’ clothes and such? We can see them wield weapons, and they can get out of their grates/walls easily enough, so why not just slit someone’s throat in their sleep and be done with it? It’d be one thing if they needed Sally to be a certain age before they take her and were just screwing around to amuse themselves while they waited, or some sort of nonsense along those lines, but if there were any “rules” to their mission they weren’t explained.
Speaking of sub-par storytelling, let’s discuss its biggest hurdle – the R rating. Producer/co-writer Guillermo Del Toro came out before the movie (as did Ms. Holmes, BC’s dream girl for years thanks to Dawson’s Creek and also much taller than I ever realized) and expressed his disappointment with the rating, saying it was intended to be PG-13 due to the lack of gore or torture (yet someone gets their teeth smashed out 5 minutes in), but they ended up getting an R basically for “scariness”. So I know that will keep out the kids who will identify/feel scared for the little girl, and suspect it will mislead the adults into thinking that their R rated Del Toro film will be a little more intelligent than it is. But again, almost everyone I talked to after (fellow writers my age or older) enjoyed it, so what the hell do I know?
I can agree with my pals on one thing though - it looks and sounds terrific. The house deserves to have a dozen horror movies set inside of it, and the CGI creatures blend terrifically with the live action. The animated opening title sequence is probably the most captivating part of the movie, which is of course not a good thing, but hey – at least it’s not just text over black. Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders’ score evokes other horror/fantasy fare like Coraline, and thankfully never gets too overbearing. And again, the sound design on the creatures when they are sticking to whispering through the vents works like gangbusters, and will make for a great demo option for home theater enthusiasts who want to show off their surround sound.
But ultimately I just expect more from the talent involved on the story side of things (co-writer Matthew Robbins also wrote the far more interesting (but studio mangled) Mimic, and Spielberg’s Sugarland Express), and without being able to feel scared for the character placed in most of the danger, it didn’t work as a thrill ride either. I don’t do scores, but if I did I’d give it like a 5/10 – not good enough to really enjoy but not particularly bad either. It was just there, looking nice but leaving no impact.
They had some excellent empanadas at the after party though. I will defend those to the death.
What say you?