Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
September 2011

We'll leave the light on for ya

'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark' is an uneasy mix of strong visual ideas and clunky storytelling

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
FilmDistrict
Director: Troy Nixey
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins, based on a 1973 teleplay by Nigel McKeand
Starring: Bailee Madison, Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Jack Thompson, Julia Blake and Garry McDonald
Rated R / 1 hour, 39 minutes
Opened August 26, 2011
(out of four)

Your overall enjoyment of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark may depend most of all on your tolerance for narrative black holes that require characters to think and behave like imbeciles. Me, I'm still trying to decide on my tolerance level - at least as it pertains to this movie.

There's so much I like about it - the artistry and ornate details of the production design, the voice work performed for the film's mysterious little monsters, the confidence and vulnerability of Bailee Madison's lead performance, Guy Pearce's silly hairdo - that I'm reticent to point out the insulting idiocy with which it gets from point A to point B.

But point it out I must. The film would have us accept that two parents, having realized with utter certainty that demonic creatures living in their Gothic fixer-upper are trying to kill their daughter Sally (Madison), will immediately proceed to leave the girl to her own devices and run around the mansion by herself in the dark.

And then, after danger has been averted yet again, those same parents will put their daughter to bed, alone, in the dark, while making plans to leave the house once and for all . . . later on that night. As if the demonic creatures in question will all agree to leave Sally alone for a few hours to allow the parents time to pack.

If the film were true to its screenplay, the true horror would be having such incompetent and neglectful parents.

Having holes in your story is one thing; completely insulting your audience's collective intelligence is another. It's a curious thing; Guillermo del Toro, credited as a writer and producer on Don't Be Afraid, is no stranger to childhood trauma, having explored the subject in macabre, brilliant detail in both The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth. And the conspicuous absence (or unavailability) of the parents added a specific texture that made the horrors the child protagonists faced all the more unnerving. Their very isolation was the most foreboding thing of all.

There's no such sense of solitude or sorrow in Don't Be Afraid. In fact, grown-ups are all over the place, and most of the time their attention is on Sally. Except, that is, when they discover she's in real danger, at which point they leave her alone.

Of course, that's simply indicative of the poor development of the parents as a whole. The film can find nothing more creative for Guy Pearce's character than the old "single dad who pays more attention to his job than his poor child" chestnut. And the new soon-to-be stepmom, Kim (Katie Holmes), is given such whiny, borderline emo lines as "I'm only just coming to terms with my OWN difficult childhood!" Or something like that.

This is the first feature for director Troy Nixey, and he's not without talent. He has an idea of what he wants, and to a large extent he accomplishes that. He focuses his efforts on atmospherics over all else (which is why I confess I may be being too harsh on its logical shortcomings).

Nixey knows his haunted-house roots, and he knows that for any haunted-house to work, it has to be a character all its own. An old Gothic manor can't help but lend any film some added gravitas, so that's no trick. But Nixey knows how to emphasize its angles and contours, and chooses specific moments to amplify its internal dimensions, giving the whole place a sense of foreboding. He extends that feeling to the grounds surrounding the house (shades of both del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth and, though it probably goes without saying, The Shining).

And perhaps the most impressive visual achievement of all is the striking artwork on display (credited in the film to the fictional and mysterious "Emerson Blackwood"), which ends up playing a critical role in the story.

I've mentioned the creatures, and in truth they might be the stars of the film. They've been unofficial residents in this mansion for years (forever?), have an aversion to light, and seem to feed on human teeth (or collect them, anyway). They insist, upon introducing themselves to Sally, that they want to be friends. Call them what you will - goblins, faeries, demons. Whatever the case, they make for rather rich antagonists. I love the way they're designed, and how they go from passive-aggressively evil to genuinely brutal, violent and unmerciful.

But as a whole, we too often get the feeling the filmmakers are trying to hold back. Almost every scene with Holmes or Pearce feels like mere safeguarding - protection against the film's truer, darker intentions. But this is horror - the darker intentions is where the genre lives.

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