Before I even dare to discuss Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, allow me to describe the episode of Law & Order: SVU that the lead child actress Bailee Madison guest starred on. Madison plays a girl named McKenzie who runs away from her adoptive mother Joan Cusack to catch a train at Grand Central with someone the cops initially assume to be a child molester (played by the sexy Scott Henry Ian Cusick, who SPOILER ALERT two episodes later turns out indeed to be a child molester) only to discover McKenzie was actually meeting up with her former foster brother to escape crazy Joan Cusack who’s gone off the deep end ever since her first daughter went missing on an upstate camping trip and since adopted McKenzie to recreate her birth child, complete with a hair dye and nose job. You’re still with me, right? We’re only halfway there. Because now the detectives are convinced Joan Cusack is KARAZEE and decide to investigate her for the DEATH of her first daughter. Some poking and prodding (including at a Thai massage parlor where a former underage porn star works) leads them back upstate where they discover that the first kid WAS INDEED kidnapped by a backwoods mountain man who made the kid his slave wife. The shivering shell of a woman gets reunited with a still-crying Joan Cusack at the end, the forgotten adopted daughter silently nods at Olivia, and Dick Wolf’s name comes up to the sound of a gavel).
Now what was I talking about again?
Quick Plot: Sometime 100 years ago or so, a desperate man yanks his maid's teeth out as an offering to something mysterious in his basement that has apparently taken his son. The donation doesn't get the desired result.
Flashing forward to the present, 10-year-old Sally is moving to that same lordly estate with her estranged architect dad Alex (Memento's Guy Pearce) and his art historian girlfriend Kim (Mousy Holmes). It doesn't take long for Sally to discover they're not alone, as mysterious voices call out to her from behind the bolted basement ash door in a playful whisper.
Surely they mean no harm! Yes, they got naughty with Kim's fancy dresses but for the lonely depressed-in-the-making Sally, these things seem like possible fairy friends...until they stab the house's caretaker in the back with scissors and proceed to torment the poor girl whenever the lights go out.
You’re wondering what the villains look like I assume. Appropriately short, or else they wouldn’t be invited to The Shortening. They’re gray little bat things with glowing eyes or, if it helps, the spitting image of the goblin from Goblin -
but with big ungainly hunchbacks --
and shrunk down to the size of Barbie dolls.
It's a problem, because for a good deal of its buildup, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark does a decent job at being scary. "Her name is Salllllllllllyyyyyyyyyyyyyy," whisper the creatures in a fairly unsettling tone. It's not until we--and Salllllllllyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy--catch a glimpse of the rugrats in their full CGI glory that we say 'eh, that's pretty stupid.'
In fairness, one of the films that terrified me the most as a child--and fine, still kind of does--is Stephen King's Cat's Eye. Putting aside the first two 'grownup' segments, it's the third story starring Drew Barrymore as an innocent child TORMENTED by an ugly gray goblin living in her bedroom that always made me hug my Pound Puppy. In part it's Barrymore's performance and the idea that a little kid could be put in such danger. The design of the villainous troll has certainly aged by 21st century standards, but a recent rewatch made me no less unnerved. It's the pure ugliness of the creature (wearing a ragged jester's cap no less!) that made me believe--then and now--that this thing liked to murder innocents in their beds.
The problem with Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is that the 'things' to be afraid of are, plain and simple, executed poorly. The idea is fine, with them resembling a cross between emaciated humans, vampire bats, and mothballs, but when pixelated and thrown in closeup, they look SyFy Channel ready. I understand the physical and financial limits of puppetry. But I also understand the basic fact that building your horror movie around something that is supposed to be horrifying then delivering something from an early 1995 draft of a failed PBS kids show set in Gollum's day care center is generally not the way to make your audience happy.
And another thing about Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: it’s not the worst genre film to enter theaters last year. But 10 hours after watching it, as I sit here and type out a review, I kind of can’t believe how many little problems it has overall. I submit:
-An early scene where Sally is trying to convince the adults that there are creatures behind the ash door. Dad bends down to investigate. Director Troy Nixey’s camera gives us a sexy shot of Guy Pearce’s earlobe as still-mysterious tiny hands slide a sharp poker through the door’s slits, aiming it straight at the part of Guy Pearce’s body that would hear even the slightest beat. Of course he stands up just before the spear could stab him to triumphantly announce “I don’t hear anything.”
Which would be fine if the movie’s soundtrack didn’t BLAST the scraping sound of the poker sliding over metal. WE heard it, and our EARLOBES weren’t aimed DIRECTLY AT the SOUND.
-Why is the fairly useless housekeeper an old British woman? Is it because a) they liked that actress b) they thought it added to the atmosphere or c) the filmmaker forgot that he was making a movie about a haunted New England home and decided to honor Old England?
-Any time a character hears another--often a child--SCREAMING FOR DEAR LIFE just a few rooms away, said character (usually an adult) reacts as such:
2. Tenses up
3. Looks around towards the source of noise
4. Opens mouth
5. Widens eyes
6. Sprints towards the action
Now I’ve never had to save anyone from carnivorous goblin people, but I’m going to make a bold assumption and say you can generally skip steps 1-5
-The world’s most helpful librarian explains plenty of useful exposition to Kim, including the fact that these nasty creatures have to feed on ONE body to keep them warm and toasty until the next time they emerge. But judging by the first scene, these dudes have a pretty intense appetite that isn’t sated by devouring the artist’s child. Yet SPOILER ALERT by the end of the film, the things have presumably made a Thanksgiving feast out of rail thin and buttless Katie Holmes and seem content to hang out downstairs until the next tenant. Consistency please?
That's the kind of film this is. When watching it, there are sparks of intrigue. Then you apply the slightest sense of logic and realize that just about nothing in the film works.
Except for the fact that it’s about creepy little things and thereby a supporter of The Shortening!
Considering my recent issues with modern genre cinema’s obvious choices in sound design, I have to give credit to Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’s first major jump scare. You probably saw the leadup in the trailer, as Sally slowly unfurls her bedsheet to see what’s nipping at her feet. Most films made today would tell us the EXACT moment of reveal with a soundtrack crescendo, but this one is smart enough to catch us off guard. Even if the payoff is a tad underwhelming (Hunchback Goblin Barbie didn’t do much for me), the execution of the scene is smart
The fact that nobody in the movie seems to have the common sense to turn the lights on
Things that won’t endear you to your prospective stepdaughter: talking teddy bears, scone baking
Drawing is easy
Either people in movies are really vulnerable to the effects of falling down the stairs or I am a superwoman. Do you KNOW how many times I’ve tumbled down or up steps? Do you KNOW how many times I’ve passed out or died from doing so? In 30 years, the answer thus far is zero.
Terrible Parenting Alert
Poor Bailee Madison can’t catch a break with her cinematic parents. After Joan Cusack’s near brainwashing, the kid has to deal with Guy Pearce’s apathetic fathering and worse, Katie Holmes overeager stepmother-to-be incompetence. My favorite example of such involves Sally falling asleep on the grownups’ bed--because she is terrified of being eaten--Katie Holmes waking up and CARRYING THE TERRIFIED KID BACK TO HER OWN ROOM. Poor unloved Sally wakes up to plead with Kim not to leave her, which Kim kindly promises. Once the kid is out, Kim stands up, smiles, throws the god awful talking teddy bear under the covers with Sally (who has already expressed hating the stupid thing) and LEAVES THE KID TO BE ATTACKED BY CARNIVOROUS MONSTERS. I know kids say the darndest things, but when they’re paralyzed by fear, can’t you just humor them for a night?
As flawed a film as I think Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is, I still didn’t necessarily hate it. The house looks terrific and the idea of vertically challenged goblins eating children’s teeth kept me entertained enough for a good deal of its running time. I can’t recommend it to the kind of genre fan who’s bothered by logic holes and cruddy CGI. I don’t really recommend it to anyone, but I think there are those with a more forgiving attitude towards modern theatrical horror (if you exist) that will find it more enjoyable than some other mainstream releases. Or not.