Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 15, 2011)
Co-written and co-produced by Guillermo Del Toro, 2011’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark comes with a stronger pedigree than the average horror flick. I didn’t hear much about the movie when it hit US screens in August, but his participation intrigued me enough to prompt a look at this Blu-ray.
In a prologue, we go back decades – centuries? - to meet Lord Blackwood (Garry McDonald), the owner of a Rhode Island estate. He seems to have gone around the bend, and he feeds teeth to mysterious creatures in an attempt to regain his missing son. This doesn’t work, and the beasties attack and kill him.
Fast-forward to the present day, and we see that the mansion has new owners: Alex Hurst (Guy Pearce) and his live-in girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes). They’re fixing up the building to sell it, turn a profit and help their remodeling business.
Alex’s young daughter Sally (Bailee Madison) gets shipped to Rhode Island by her mother, who no longer wants the kid around for unspecified reasons. Sally’s not too happy that she has to go live with her pop and his girlfriend, but she brightens up some when she explores the mansion’s grounds and finds a heretofore-undiscovered basement.
A basement with some creepy secrets, as we’re soon reminded. As she explores, Sally hears the voices of the aforementioned strange creatures call to her. This leads to additional encounters as they try to lure her into their clutches.
Probably the biggest mistake made by Dark occurs right at its start. The entire prologue with Blackwood seems superfluous, as we could’ve caught up with his tale later in the film via an orally retelling or a flashback. The film would’ve gotten off to a more intriguing launch if it’d kept us in the here and now and not given us such a blatant glimpse at the house’s haunted past.
Still, I’d be okay with the prologue if only it didn’t spell out so much for us. At the very least, we should’ve been left to wonder if the house held any real horror or if Blackwood was just a nutbag with a tooth fetish. The film doesn’t leave open any room for interpretation; while we don’t see the creatures until later in the flick, we clearly know that they’re real, so their reappearance in modern times lacks the appropriate drama.
This saps tension from much of the film’s development. In a better-told narrative, we’d be left to wonder if Sally has emotional issues of her own. As the flick slowly builds the increasing presence of the creatures, we’d feel more intrigue if we wondered what was really happening there: are the monsters legit or is Sally just a messed-up little kid?
The movie even hints at Sally’s potential emotional issues. We know she’s on psychotropic medication for unspecified reasons. Does she take the drugs because her mother’s too lazy to actually parent her or is it because the kid has some real problems?
At no point does the film explore this issue, mostly because it doesn’t bother to create any mystery. Since the creatures are presented as real from minute one, we never question Sally’s mental status.
This ensures that a large portion of the film proceeds as a long, slow tease. We know that the creatures exist, so we simply wait for them to make themselves more obvious – and for the adults to catch up with what Sally already knows.
We wait. And we wait. And we wait a whole lot more. The film takes forever to get to the point at which it reveals the truth for all to see, and then it just turns into a minor scarefest. Any potential tension already went out the window, so all we have left is some violence. It doesn’t come out to a satisfying resolution, mostly because we’re so bored by that point we just don’t much care what happens to Sally and her family.
Dark makes other story mistakes as well. In the “particularly galling” category comes Kim’s use of a Polaroid camera. She pulls this out to take a picture of Sally when they pick her up at the airport. Why does Kim use such an outdated piece of technology? I have no idea – the film never explains why she doesn’t just use a digital camera like everyone else.
The presence of the Polaroid threw me off so much that I briefly wondered if Dark was supposed to be a period film set in the 1970s. I quickly figured out that it indeed takes place in present day – we immediately see Sally on her cell phone, so that plops it in modern times – so what’s with the Polaroid?
The film gives us an answer, but it has nothing to do with narrative logic. Why does Kim have a Polaroid camera? So it can be used as a contrived plot device later in the film.
For a character-based horror flick, Dark comes with far too many issues to overcome. That’s a shame, as the basic story has potential, and the production values seem good; the setting offers a creepy atmosphere that could’ve been used well with a stronger narrative.
And the actors seem fine. I’d previously seen Madison in Adam Sandler’s Just Go With It and disliked her. She was simply awful in that flick, and I feared her overbearing hamminess would come back to haunt Dark.
To my pleasant surprise, Madison keeps things under control here. Granted, the movie doesn’t ask her to do much more than sulk, cry and scream, but at least she doesn’t overplay her emotions. Sally dominates the tale, so it’s good that the young actress suits the role well. She’s clearly more talented than I thought after I saw her in Just Go With It and she works well here.
Too bad that the movie itself is so tedious. At its core, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark offers a potentially intriguing narrative, but it botches its telling of the story too often for it to succeed. We end up with a sporadically creepy but ultimately unsatisfying effort.
Dorky website footnote: this is our first review of a 2012 release. Who cares? Probably no one, but I like to mention pointless trivia. Whee – Happy New Year!