Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)

Fixer-Upper
★★
☆☆☆
Released: 
2010
Director: 
Troy Nixey
Starring: 
Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison, Jack Thompson
The Setup: 
House is infested with evil little critters.
Discussion: 

This is a remake of a TV movie that was so weird and scary it captivated me and my sister, who is still psychologically scarred by it to this day. I found a pirate DVD of the original, which I rewatched and found to be pretty bad, but amusing and creepy enough. In that one, the little critters infesting the house were guys in gorilla suits with wrinkled raisin heads, and there was no explanation as to why they were there. Here the monsters are all CGI, and a cursory explanation has been given as to where they came from and what they want. And we'll see how it all works out.

We open in olden times with a Mr. Blackwood down in the basement of his creepy mansion. He calls a servant down, trips her, and knocks out her teeth. He himself has no teeth, and he prepares a special teeth sampler platter, with parsley garnish, and places it just inside the iron fireplace, which just happens to have a big tunnel leading way down into the ground. But then he gets pulled in and--credits! The credit sequence is a CGI fest where writing gets structured into pictures and is quite beautiful.

Once it's over, we join our protagonists, Alex, dad played by Guy Pearce, Kim, played by Katie Holmes (and surely named in tribute of Kim Darby, star of the original) and Alex's daughter Sally. They have acquired the house, and Alex, who is an architect, is going to fix it up and sell it to claw his way out of financial problems. Kim is the typical stepmother who Sally won't accept, and Sally is very bummed about having to leave her real mother, and is a sullen brat for the whole first half.

So the idea is that the evil critters are afraid of light, which provides a lot of welcome complication to the original, as you are safe during the day, and in danger at night, but can protect oneself with light. So, for a movie with that as its conceit, this remake is particularly careless about its use of light, which becomes more apparent as we go through, and becomes a curious feature as to why it is aggressively invalidating it's own main story feature. Things get off to a bad start when Sally, in a single shot, walks out of a sunless, overcast day into the house, where bright sunlight is streaming in through the windows. You will also note throughout the film that sunlight is almost always streaming in through the windows, even in the dead of night.

Things proceed for a while with Sally being upset about having to be there, and twice mentioning that her mom "gave her" to dad, an ominous intimation that ends up going precisely nowhere. She finds a secret basement, which we know as the site of the teeth-bashing at the beginning. You'll notice that Alex and Kim are rather nonplussed by finding this vast underground chamber filled with all sorts of equipment from an earlier century. There is the stove, all bolted shut, which Sally immediately takes to opening. She is hearing voices from within, from whom she takes to be her "friends." Soon we are seeing little skeletal people emerge, skittering around like rats, and not taking time to slowly reveal themselves. They set about making problems immediately, and seriously injure the daddybear caretaker, sending him to the hospital.

The little monsters shred Kim's clothes, which seems a little directed when you consider all the things in the house they could have destroyed, but we want to have a scene in which Alex yells at Sally for ruining her clothes, making it look like part of Sally's new mom adjustment problem. But from the critters' point of view: Why? They don't have any stake in making Sally hate Kim. It's there to support the sub-theme but doesn't make sense within the story, and, well, this IS produced by Guillermo Del Toro, who is all about things that create effect in the moment without caring whether they make sense in the larger story. Anyway, soon Sally sees one of the little buggers up close, realizes that they aren't her friends after all, and her surrogate mommy issues are resolved in a jif.

SPOILERS > > >
Meanwhile, Kim goes to visit the hunky daddybear caretaker in the hospital, and he tells her to get the child out of there ASAP and also check out her local library for the latest Dan Brown thriller, as well as the ignoble history of the house. Meanwhile Sally is getting attacked in the tub, an analog to a similar scene in the original (in which the attacks focused on the Kim character, btw). The creatures do nothing but run around. Not all that threatening. I thought they we going to DO something here, but I guess they're just going to walk around being spooky until the script dictates that they enact some sort of plan. This movie is also PG-13, and really seems like it. Anyway, at the Library, Kim finds out that there's a legend of little elves or gnomes or what-have-you that have to kidnap a child every time they emerge. The guy we saw at the beginning got his child eaten there, though we know that the beasties didn't just go home after that. Kids: Nobody can eat just one! Then there's this thing how they eat children's teeth, only they also eat adult's teeth when they can't get them. Or something. Let's just sit back and not expect things to make sense, okay? The original film left everything unexplained, and as a result I didn't have all this confusion about what they're doing or what they want. They were unexplained. Case closed. Anyway, downstairs is a mural painted by the dude from the prologue which suggests he might have had a bright future designing cards for Shoebox Greetings.

From now on the references to the original start flying thick and fast, nary a one sticking and mostly just there as callouts to those who remember it. Alex is having a party that night, key to his plans to sell the house, and he is not at all receptive to hearing anything Kim or Sally might have to say about tiny demons. In here Sally shows up with the famous Instamatic--no information about why a modern child would have one--and is running around the party wasting her film and her flash. You need to know that in the ending of the original film, Kim is dragged down to the basement by her tied feet, the few flashes on her Instamatic her only defense, capable of making the beasties go away, if only for a moment. There was also a famous party scene in which Kim freaks out after looking down and seeing a beastie in her lap. So here we have the party scene, in which it is now Sally freaking out and little critters running everywhere beneath the table, seen by no one except her. She goes into the other room and is attacked, squishing one of the creatures and leaving behind a severed arm, which she doesn't think constitutes as effective evidence as a blurry Polaroid showing nothing. The party breaks up--with Dad seeming none too upset about it, although it has been his one and only focus for the whole film. You know, it's good to be flexible.

Kim has decided to take Sally away from there, and suddenly Dad agrees that they need to move out right away. Yeah, he's just suddenly going to abandon everything he's been myopically obsessed with for the past months and chuck it. Yup. But, if you've seen a movie before, you know that the minute they say they're going to flee the next morning, they aren't going to survive the night. Once again they leave Sally all alone for the night--just a few demons after her, she'll be fine--and she is soon bound by her feet and dragged down into the cellar. We have a shot of her leaving her Instamatic behind, apparently alluding to the original in telling us she won't have even this line of defense. Soon Kim and Dad are down there as well, in the cellar where the bright light is streaming in, and Kim ends up sacrificed to save Sally, an unusual case of the stepmother buying it for the stepdaughter (also a feature of another Del Toro production, Mama), and Dad, who is a shit, surviving to care for her. After a coda expressing that Kim is now a mini-demon, we're out.
< < < SPOILERS END

Oh dear, just not very good. For one, they just haven't thought the story through. Sally's mommy issues are thrown on for effect at the beginning, but just grow ever more muddled and don't effectively play out. We have at once too much explanation of the creatures and yet not enough, as they never have a clear game plan and, perhaps because of the PG-13 rating, their attacks are ineffective in a way that deflates tension. You have the feeling that if any of our humans really went on the offensive with a golf club and a few good rat traps, they'd have the problem cleaned up in a jif. Dad's a selfish bastard until suddenly he sees the light and drops everything he's been working for all along. Let's also mention that you get hopes up because of Guy Pearce in the role, yet he has little to do that takes advantage of his talents. Katie Holmes is not as bad as one might expect, but also displays her lack of presence. Bailee Madison as Sally gets a lot to do and handles her part excellently. She just needs a better movie.

The most mysterious thing is that the entire story, and title, is built around these things that stick to the dark, making light the human's best defense, yet the movie muddles the whole thing to the point where it's completely ineffective. I've mentioned numerous times the bright light streaming in through windows, even in the dead of night (and no big streetlamps outside). Then you have the creatures, supposedly banished by light, running around in well-lit conditions, making this entire conceit useless. This takes away the one real defense the people have, and thus loses much of the suspense it could have generated by giving them a way to fight back, effectively making their struggles just sort of random and shapeless. It also diminishes the creatures to know what they are and what they want, though they seem spectacularly inept at getting it.

This film has a decent amount of atmosphere and certainly a curious and intriguing menace, it all just seems like it needs someone to take another pass at the script and someone to put some good thought into what's going on with the lighting an themes. Overall, just a lot more care and effort would turn this from a promising piece of crap to a pretty good B thriller.

Should you watch it: 

You will miss nothing whatsoever if you don't, but it could be worse.