I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

early review: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)

tn_dontbeafraidDON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is a classed-up remake of an old ’70s TV movie. The director is a rookie friend of the internet named Troy Nixey, but it was produced and written by none other than Guillermo del Toro (in collaboration with his MIMIC co-writer Matthew Robbins).

The tone is completely serious, but all in fun. It’s not trying to punish you, like a Rob Zombie movie, but it is trying to make you wince and feel sympathy pain. That’s why the opening scene is (SPOILER) an old man crying and apologizing as he chisels out his maid’s front teeth. After that you know the movie is boss so you better just shut the fuck up and do what it says.

It’s a refreshingly small scale story about a couple (Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes) restoring an old house and not realizing that some murderous little ghoulies live underneath it and feel they need to come out for human sacrifice and snacking on the teeth of children. These guys have a unique look, kind of a Nosferatu-faced ratman. They’re li’l wufs.

mp_dontbeafraidThe handling of the creatures is A+. They do a great job of showing them in glimpses, scurrying by quickly as just a little bit of the flashlight catches them. The first time a character comes face to face with one they’re both screaming in terror like E.T. and Elliot. You think you saw it clearly but it goes by so fast you’re not sure if you remember it right. When you eventually do get a better look at them they live up to the anticipation and you feel like you’re not supposed to be seeing them, you walked in on some crazy shit you weren’t supposed to know was going on.

In the ’80s they’d do POV shots and offscreen jibber jabber to save on the pain in the ass of shooting the Ghoulie puppets. Here they get to do it as a deliberate artistic choice. The technical execution of the creatures is just as flawless as their suspense-building presentation. I assume it’s pretty much all digital because they’re too spindly and move too well to be puppets. But they don’t have any of the sins of modern digital effects. They don’t jump around all the time or other stupid things filmatists tend to overdo to show off. They scurry around like real rodents. Actually they looked so good that I bet somebody at Warner Brothers or wherever will see it and decide it’s time to remake GREMLINS.

But what makes this a solid horror movie is that you’re not just bored waiting around for the part where you see the monsters. All three leads are really good: you have Pearce as the well-meaning but self-involved architect, and you’ve got Holmes as his girlfriend/interior designer, and a girl named Bailee Madison as his young daughter, who’s pretty much the lead. She seems much more like a real kid than a spunky child actor. She’s depressed and pouty but not whiny. You feel bad for her being dumped in a strange place with the dad she’s never lived with. She looks so young and cherubic and doesn’t talk that much but then knows how to throw out exactly the comment that will cut an adult down to her size. She unleashes the monsters out of a combination of innocent curiosity, bitter mischief and maybe slight craziness. I mean, she’s lonely, why not look into these strange voices whispering to her through the vents? Maybe she’ll find some company. Anyway, her living situation turns out to be worse than she thought.

I know everybody hates Katie Holmes now because she’s married to a famous actor who is weird and practices a heathen space religion. But when she was a young teen star she seemed pretty promising. I remember she used to be on that show Dawson Creek, it was on that same “WB” channel that showed other shows such as Felicity I believe might’ve been what one of them was called, I’m really not sure. Dawson Creek was created by the writer of SCREAM and was the stuff that bothered you in the SCREAM movies and nothing that you liked and done as a weekly high school soap opera for several years. From what I saw it was not my bag but I always thought Katie Holmes was pretty good and should probly leave before she became too associated with it. But it really didn’t seem to hurt her or her co-star Michele Williams who not only went on to be nominated for an Academy Award but also was in HALLOWEEN H20.

Anyway Holmes took a break for a few years after the Batman movie, which to be honest she wasn’t that great in. But it’s nice to see her back. At first I thought “Isn’t Katie Holmes a little young to be with Guy Pearce?” and then I thought “Oh yeah, her real husband is older than her too” and then it turns out she’s supposed to be younger, and this is a point of contention between Pearce and his ex-wife. The main relationship in the movie is between the girlfriend Kim and the little girl Sally. Sally resents Kim, Kim desperately wants to be accepted by Sally, and also sees how badly she needs a connection with someone that her real parents don’t give her.

There’s a part in the movie where Sally has to kind of resemble Kim, and it was so convincing I questioned whether that was Holmes’s daughter playing Sally. Holmes must’ve trained her to do that weird crooked sad-smile she does. Unless they did it with computers.

It’s nice of Kim to worry about Sally’s emotional well-being, but she’s gonna have to figure out to also worry about her physical safety, because there really are mean, furry little ancient beings out to get her. Yeah, if we knew about them and had our wits about us it would be pretty easy to grab the little guys and twist their heads off. Also we might consider capturing them and putting little doll clothes on them and forcing them to pose for funny pictures and what not. But nobody believes Sally and she has no control over where she lives so there’s not much she can do.

And as long as the adults don’t figure it out the wufs have the element of surprise on their side. Nixey milks the “creepy things we don’t realize are about to touch us” factor with lots of POV shots from inside the vents or from low angles near vulnerable bare feet on cold floors or dangling off the end of beds. Or long sharp objects that reach out and just about poke an unaware Pearce before he moves away. I think I had some wimps in my audience but I could hear and feel them being creeped out, squirming, gasping and (this was probly going too far) screaming. One of those cases where I see the movie lead them around on a leash and have them completely under its control for 90 minutes and then at the end they laugh and claim it was dumb.

I don’t want to take any credit away from this Nixey guy, who clearly did a good job, but there’s definitely alot of Del Toro in here: the fascination with old mystics, dark fairy tales, evil tooth fairies, old sketches of monsters, creepy old houses, even a labyrinth. And like CRONOS or PAN’S LABYRINTH the main character is an independent, inquisitive little girl who understands things the adults don’t but is far from invulnerable to physical and emotional torment. It kind of reminds me of when Spielberg used to produce movies like GREMLINS and POLTERGEIST. Del Toro is not the director but he’s not just putting his name on it, his voice definitely comes through. And by that I mean that he is one of the voices of the li’l wufs.

I don’t think I’ve seen the TV movie this is based on, but I know it has a reputation for haunting the nightmares of kids that saw it, kind of like that evil doll in TRILOGY OF TERROR did. This remake isn’t gonna be on network TV and nobody should bring their kids to it, but you know some of them are gonna see it some way or other, and man is it not gonna be pretty. It’s almost like it’s designed to reinforce everything terrible their imagination tells them about their house at night.

This is a real good mainstream horror movie. It could never pass for PG-13, it never sissies out, it’s upsetting what happens to some characters, but it’s good clean fun for anybody that enjoys monsters fucking up people’s lives. (Also, 100% rape free, friends.) I’m not gonna claim it’s some new classic or anything but I think plenty of people will dig it out once every fifth or sixth Halloween and enjoy it. I will also say unequivocally that it is the best “little bastard” horror movie I’ve seen in a long god damn time although I have not seen all of the recent Full Moon releases or THE SMURFS.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Friday, August 19th, 2011 at 12:54 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

40 Responses to “early review: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)”

  1. The original Don’t be Afraid… is one of those movies where I 50% wanted a remake to up the production values, cinematography and 50% dreaded that the remake would turn out like most remakes do. Really pleased this one is getting decent reviews.

  2. I just skimmed over this so I wouldn’t be spoiled but the last paragraph of your review has me sold, although the trailer did a pretty good job of that too.

    The last good ghost story type movie I saw and enjoyed was Insidious, would you say this is better than that or at least as good?

  3. This sounds great, especially since there’s been a real dearth of good horror movies this year. Problem is, my girlfriend has only in the past few years come around to horror movies, and I’d love to watch this with her, but the tooth-chiseling sounds like it’s way past her threshold. She’s generally fine with violence and moderate levels of gore (she liked the new version of THE CRAZIES a lot), but not with painful-looking stuff. Vern, is there anything else in this that approaches the tooth-chiseling? I don’t need details, just… is this more intense/painful than, say, THE CRAZIES?

    Also, while I’m thinking about it, does anyone have any 2011 horror recommendations?

  4. I’m looking forward to the remake because I was one of those kids that grew up with the original, and my family still get nostalgic about the original version and talk about how creepy it was. I just hope that they resist the urge to overexplain things because part of what made the original so creepy is that the little guys didn’t have any apparent reason – they were just THERE and it wasn’t entirely clear why they were messing with the homeowners.

  5. Hey, did you know Nick Nunziata from CHUD was an executive producer on this? Good for him.

    Really looking forward to catching this, when I was a kid the original fucked me up for YEARS.

  6. one guy from andromeda

    August 19th, 2011 at 7:41 am

    the trailer for this looked really uninspired, but after this review i might check it out. i especially like the 100% rape free endorsement.

  7. I’ve also had numerous people tell me Fright Night is awesome as well. Good to be a horror fan for once.

  8. Jareth Cutestory

    August 19th, 2011 at 8:51 am

    Reno Dakota: Some of the better/more interesting horror I’ve seen recently have been:

    WE ARE WHAT WE ARE
    DREAM HOUSE
    RED WHITE & BLUE
    UNDOCUMENTED
    THE LOVED ONES
    SECRET SUNDAY
    THE HOUSEMAID
    CINDERELLA (The Korean one, not the Disney one)

    I also recommend CALVARE. Because I recommend CALVARE every chance I get.

  9. Maybe I’m just in a bitter kind of mood today, but I can’t really see how having two remakes that don’t suck makes this a good time to be a horror fan. Have we really been so starved that we’ll take these recycled scraps and smile like it’s a full meal? Nothing against either of these movies, which I’ve heard are decent, but they’re still part of the problem.

    I actually watched the original DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK recently. The creepy little fuckers are still creepy, but the rest of the movie is kind of a chore because it’s what I like to call a “maid movie.” In a maid movies, which can be in any genre, people have the problems created by the plot, but they’re spared all of the other problems the rest of us would also have to be dealing with (work, rent, bills, chores) by their upper class status. Thus I feel less sympathy for them, knowing that were I to be haunted by an incubus or targeted by kidnappers or whatever, I would still have to go to work. I wouldn’t be able to check myself into a sanitarium or just stay home while my husband in the double-breasted suit hired the best doctors played by Darren McGavin or whomever. (This movie is purely hypothetical as far as I know, but you get the gist.) The presence of the maid is a symbol for the buffer of wealth that makes me feel removed from the proceedings. I can’t help but think “Why should I feel bad for you, lady? The maid’s stuck in the same haunted house for minimum wage.”

    This is partially why I’ve never cared for Hammer movies. Maid movies, all.

    Also, the sexual politics of the original DBAOTD are really dated nowadays. There was no daughter character so they infantilized the wife to an insulting degree. I think this might have been the point (kind of a Yellow Wallpaper thing) but it’s pretty infuriating to watch.

  10. I still haven’t forgiven Katie Holmes for her terrible performance in Batman Begins. The scene where she tells Bruce that she won’t make it to his birthday party because, “Some of us have work to do,” sends me into a Hulk-like rage.

  11. Vern, how on earth did you manage to review this early?

    anyway I can not fucking wait for this movie, it looks right up my alley

    I find it weird how years ago I read on imdb about two made for tv horror movies that were supposedly really scary, the movies in question were Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark and The Woman In Black and now they both being remade and both are being produced by Del Toro, I get the feeling that guy spends a lot of time on the internet (which is maybe why he hasn’t directed a movie in 3 years)

    also the Fright Night remake looks bad to me, I hate how the entire movie is blue, like someone spilled blue kool aid on the film prints

  12. Dieselboy – personally I thought this was much more satisfying than INSIDIOUS.

    Reno – there’s nothing else that brutal, it’s just an opening to shake you up and let you know it means business. I predict your girlfriend would be fine after that scene.

    Andy – be warned, they do explain some things, but it’s a very mythical kind of explanation with plenty of ambiguity

  13. To piggyback on majestyk’s comment, i too have a hard time feeling sympathy for rich housewife type characters in horror movies. I also have a hard time feeling sympathy for teenagers in horror movies also. Both of those types of characters are pretty similar in that their lives are pretty carefree, other than the fact they’re being haunted/possessed/whatever. Its never a factory worker or a gas station attendant being haunted. One of the reason’s I liked Drag Me to Hell (liked, didn’t love) is because it really shows how being haunted can affect your career and your love life. The whole demon thing is really fucking with her job at the bank and her relationship with Justin Long. I think I was more interested in that aspect of the movie than the “prevent yourself from being possessed by a demon” part.

  14. So…this ISN’T a big screen adaptation of the Nickelodeon show ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK?

  15. Mr M. I think you have nailed a great point there regarding why I don’t enjoy some of these movies… could never put my finger on it, but yeah, a normal person’s obligations wouldn’t just get brushed aside like they can do in these flicks. In retrospect it seems quite obvious but a lot of good points do.

    Also offers some explanation as to why I enjoyed Drag Me to Hell, pretty sure she tries to go about her daily business as best she can before, well… the end.

  16. ThomasCrown beat me to it… I fell into the trap of reading a comment and replying before finishing the thread.

  17. Hey Len, pretty funny that we pretty much posted the exact same comment by sheer coincidence. Glad to see we’re on the same page.

  18. Jareth – I hear you about CALVARE, it’s one of the most fucked up movies ever. I’ve seen more extreme movies, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt as bad for the main character as in that one. So many times while watching it I thought, “Well, I guess it can’t get any worse for him.” Then a minute later I would think, “No, I was so very wrong.”

  19. “Andy – be warned, they do explain some things, but it’s a very mythical kind of explanation with plenty of ambiguity”

    Vern – like RINGU?

  20. Jareth – if you’re going to go around recommending CALVAIRE every chance you get, you might want to spell it as CALVAIRE.

  21. Love Majestyk’s “maid movies” encapsulation. Any opinions on why they’re so prevalent? Because the creators are well off, or because it’s fewer details for a writer to juggle, or because audiences tend to think wealthy people are more interesting or attractive? I do remember reading somewhere that part of why so many film characters have enormous kitchens is so there’s space for cameras and movement. Plus I suppose there’s the idea that the high and mighty have more to lose – a sort of bastardization of why much ancient drama is about royalty, nobility, and/or gods …

  22. Jareth Cutestory

    August 19th, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    My only problem with the “maid movies” theory is that I don’t know how to feel about “suckers on vacation.” Is that legitimate grounds to set aside maidly reservations? Or just a loophole disguising the same problem? Probably this wouldn’t bother me if I couldn’t think of a hundred horror films where the protagonists are on vacation/visiting granny.

    Do the TEXAS CHAIN SAW kids get a pass because they were hippie slackers?

    Zeke: The lead actor in CALVAIRE has the most tragic face. And that’s at the BEGINNING of the film. Also: Scariest. Dancing. Ever.

    Caoimhín: Thanks for the correction. From now on I’ll do to CALVAIRE the same thing I do to your name: cut & paste.

  23. The “maid movie” theory isn’t limited to horror films. Any film these days is mostly about people who are in the upper echelons of the middle class, or are outright wealthy. I think part of it is because films, especially big Hollywood films, are all about wish fulfillment. The audience wants to see themselves in the role of these well to do characters, but they still have enough restraint not to identify with someone who is filthy rich. I do see a trend towards examining the life of the working class. There have been a lot of Oscar nominees that have tried to represent the underprivileged. Some of these movies, like Slumdog Millionaire, are problematic, but I still think it’s a positive trend. I was especially pleased with Winter’s Bone. That film did a great job of representing poor rural families while making sure that they were characters first and not merely stand ins for their class.

  24. Definitely Thomas, lot’s of that goes on here and even when disagreements occur it’s amicable enough for the most part.

    Speaking of which. Rbatty’s wish fulfilment theory is a good one and I agree with it to an extent… I’d add that if every movie showed the nuts and bolts of the characters life whilst trying to deal with the curse/serial killer/murderous clown with a grudge etc people would be asking them to get on with the story.

    It’s probably many things… being out of touch, not being able to incorporate it effectively, wanting to get on with the story. Inspector Li’s question is an interesting one no doubt.

  25. Jareth, the vacation exemption is valid IMO. I have an easier time swallowing people living a week of scheduled leisure and indulgence than, e.g., a protagonist being a magazine editor, in which there’s one scene of “work” (“change this cover picture with that one!”) as justification for endless money and free time forever after.

  26. Jareth Cutestory

    August 20th, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    Inspector Li: That’s what I was thinking too. At their best, the vacation becomes part of the theme of the movie, like in HOSTEL. Or BLAME IT ON RIO.

  27. I like it in movies where we see people taking out the trash and doing their taxes.

  28. Following up on Jareth’s suggestions, Wikipedia describes Secret Sunday’s plot as “He escorts from Poon his nice Columnist girlfriend and Sujitto a young friar who rides in the Tripitaka house and accountably for the carol to hunt the bad karma.”

    So I guess I’m sold.

  29. I need to watch this movie.

  30. I think part of the maid movie (good term) point is that there is a belief that the upper echelons are free to indulge their fantasies (and fears) to a greater degree and tend to worry about their stuff rather than people. If they even believed the circumstances (i.e. calling a priest before a plumber), your practical blue collar types would go: A demon? Fuck that, I’m off. Although they would find getting a loan/mortgage/rent to help move difficult in this day and age. Maybe the recession will generate a round of working-class horror.

    Maybe horror as an idea doesn’t affect the working class in the same way because more practical worries come first.

  31. so I saw this tonight and yup, it’s pretty much exactly the kind of movie I wish Hollywood made more often

    while I’m not gonna say it was a life changing experience or anything, it’s a very solid horror flick done in a refreshingly old school style

    there was a girl around my age in the theater who sat in the row behind me and this movie scared the SHIT out of her, it was hilarious, she screamed LOUDLY during every jump scare and at one point when I looked back at her she was hiding her eyes

    so that made it totally worth going to the theater

  32. I’m disapointed that I seem to be the only on here that saw this

  33. Griff, seeing it this afternoon using leftover Regal Bucks. I’ll be sure to pop on and give you my thoughts…

  34. Griff, just got back and I’ve got to say this was just “whatever” for me. It felt like a big budget version of a Gremlins rip-off from the 80’s (right down to the Polaroid scenes). I was surprised when I left the theater and saw the poster stating that it was rated R because this felt PG-13 all the way. None of it was scary. It felt like a short film drawn out to feature length. Thank God I used a free movie pass cuz it was just… underwhelming.

  35. well ol’ Jack Burton, I agree that the movie is not mindblowing, but it has a certain style and technique to it that I feel is not seen enough in modern movies (for example, the cool set of the basement)

    it’s almost like a horror version of Super 8, in that it intentionally shoots for an old school style (although it’s definitely not as good as Super 8), so it’s heart is in the right place even if it doesn’t fully succeed

    I agree that the R rating is stupid though, if Casino Royale could get away with the “whacking James Bond’s balls with a rope” scene and still have a PG-13, then there is no reason why this could not have been PG-13, it’s really bizarre

    it boggles the mind to think that they used to allow nudity in PG-13, I hate the MPAA

  36. Yeah PG-13 used to mean “Pretty Great”. I think the movie that ruined the rating in terms of nudity was Doc Hollywood. Julie Warner’s nude scene went on FOREVER but since it was only one pair of tits, it got the PG-13. After that I think the MPAA felt like they got tricked somehow and stopped allowing tits, which is why you don’t see a lot of tit friendly PG-13 movies post ’91.

  37. the only example I can think of would be Titanic, which had only one tit

  38. … and the benefit of James Cameron directing. A-List directors usually get away with a LOT more shit when it comes to PG and PG-13 ratings (look at Spielberg in the Golden Era of the 80’s).

  39. I’m one of those folk who jump at the cheap thrill shots; those shock scares and the resultant quick subsiding of tension are one the most basic tropes of horror, and despite some overuse, they still contribute to the overall experience of watching a scary movie. I agree that most anyone who likes horror flicks and denies that they enjoy the shock shots is probably fronting.

    Anyhow, I really liked how Del Toro changed the focus of the plot from that of a privileged housewife and her going maaaad, (but not really) to a child whose being in peril only gradually becomes known to her parents.

    (spoiler) I appreciated that it was Katie Holmes, the ‘wicked stepmother’ who ends up coming to the rescue. In doing that, Del Toro subverted some of the usual fairytale heroics, but at the same time he reinforced that a good mom’s most important and primal role is that of caregiver who is ferociously protective and willing to sacrifice anything on behalf of the kids in their care. Also, Katie Holmes and the girl even looked similar – good job casting there guys.

  40. GrimGrinningChris

    January 8th, 2012 at 11:22 pm

    Wanted to chime in on this since it just came out on disc so I finally saw it.
    Loved it.
    I didn’t find it scary at all, most likely due to showing the creatures so much. I would have preferred that they NEVER showed them, I think just the sounds and the voices and shadows and whatnot would have been terrifying. However, knowing that this never would have been been greenlit unless they at least agreed to show the creatures at SOME point and if they had kept them totally hidden the whole time, a third act reveal would have probably been disappointing too… so I think they were fine in how they were ultimately handled, it simply kept it from being an actual horror movie to me and became more of a spooky dark fantasy. Which is perfectly fine by me.
    Glad to see Pearce as a lead in a major theatrical release again… and the little girl was fucking fantastic -she was also really really good in BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA (now I’m gonna have to go look and see if Vern ever reviewed that one).

    I will say that it took me out of the movie a couple times in speaking of the therapy and Adderal etc… knowing that in real life that Katie Holmes has have been indoctrinated into the anti-psych drugs camp.

    But anyway… rambling a bit.
    I really dug this movie and think it is right there with (though superior to, even) INSIDIOUS as solid, theatrical spooky shit from the past year that seemed well liked by a lot of critics but seemed to divide audiences into the LOVE IT or HATE IT camps.

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