Movie Review: Turn Off The Dark. Please.

Guillermo, gremlins, Gollum, grindhouse…and you’d think it would be a good time. Quick, what’s a “g” word for “dull and pointless”?

Film: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
Starring: Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Ballie Madison
Written by: Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins
Directed by: Troy Nixey
Genre: Horror, thriller, pointless remake
Rating: 3 out of 10 / D


Young Sally (Bailee Madison) is a child of divorce and has been sent by her mother to live with her father Alex (Guy Pearce). Alex happens to be living in and renovating the old Blackwood manor with his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes). Sally is emotionally distant and on an unspecified medication for an unspecified problem, a situation not helped by Alex having his attention constantly drawn to his project. One day, Sally begins hearing voices calling to her from an abandoned ash pit in a formerly-hidden basement in the house, and soon after that a swarm of homunculi are wreaking havoc (and the occasional attempted murder) on people in the house, as homunculi often do. Sally tries to convince her father and Kim that there are a pack of hairy, CGI goblins causing chaos, and that it’s not just the overactive imagination of a psychologically damaged child. Meanwhile, Katie Holmes tries to act scared or something.

It’s often said that there are no new ideas in storytelling mediums. In the horror landscape of 2011, this is taken to an absurd level by an endless string of often unnecessary film remakes. It’s not another adaptation of Dracula, but updated versions of films less than 40 years old, which seems relatively pointless in an age where virtually everything that anybody believes is worth seeing is readily available to stream directly into your living room/computer screen/frontal lobe (I hear Netflix is working on that last part). Such is the case with Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a remake of a 1973 TV movie of the same name. While this version sticks relatively close to the blueprint laid out in that film, it makes one fundamental change: it’s not scary at all. That’s kind of a problem for a film whose appeal is a claim that it will scare the bejeebus out of you for $10 and a tub of popcorn.

Pictured: Katie Holmes expression #3B, part of the 2.0 upgrade.

The bulk of the blame lies with first-time director Troy Nixey, a comic book artist known for working with big names like Neil Gaiman and Mike Mignola. Given producer/writer/goblin voice Guillermo del Toro‘s love of Mignola’s Hellboy series, it’s not surprising that he would choose Nixey to direct. However, as good as he may be on the page, Nixey is only barely adequate on film. His shots are too static to build tension, and his scenes are perpetually underlit, even in daylight settings. Yes, we get the fact that the dark is supposed to be the whole point of the picture, but in a scene set in a brightly lit dining room, I’d like to be able to make out more detail than Guy Pearce’s frighteningly sharp jawline. 

Nixey isn’t entirely to blame, because Del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins don’t do him any favors, nor do the cast, who mostly seem to be either slumming or overcompensating. The script is too obvious. There is little mystery because everything is laid out in obvious terms. It’s not just the unceremonious exposition dump in the third act, but everybody seems to be saying exactly what they’re feeling in the simplest words possible. There’s barely a personality among the main cast, with Guy Pearce obviously calculating his post-tax take-home amount, and Katie Holmes mostly looking blank and wide-eyed while she waits for her next e-meter audit.

Guy Pearce is not afraid of his condo payment.

Only Ballie Madison comes out okay. She has the most complex character to play in a movie filled with simplexes, and she outshines all the rest of the cast combined. She’s never too precious or too precocious, although it’s a shame that the in final third of the film she does little except scream and cry and scream. There’s a whole lot of screaming. Sally was a grown woman in the original, which added weight to the possibility that she might just be crazy and imagining everything. Here, the constant gauntlet of supernatural menace seems almost like child abuse. 

Worst of all, the film simply isn’t frightening. There are a handful of well-timed shock scares, almost all in the first half of the film, but a jump in the seats isn’t the same as a fear that will make you sleep with the lights on for three days. Fear should linger. It should be insidious and subtle. It shouldn’t shake you by the collar every 20 minutes, screaming “BE SCARED NOW!” The best horror films cause fear not through their own images, but in the extrapolated thoughts that fill the heads of the viewers. The more concrete and clear the source of the horror is, the less frightening it becomes.

Kids just love darkly lit doorways that lead to certain doom.

The small army of goblins in the film fails that litmus test. Granted, they were shown in full in the original version, too, but thanks to the primitive special effects of the time, the creatures almost never shared the screen with the main character. This was back in the days when computers were little more than stone tablets with calculators affixed, after all. In today’s world of virtual sets and animated sidekicks, Nixey and Del Toro go to town painting the creatures into the frame: crawling all over people, slashing them with scissors, doing horrible Gollum impressions, etc. As soon as we get a good look at one of the creatures in full, the horror is over. In fact, between that and the sub-par and never-convincing CGI work, it turns into an unwitting black comedy. In my showing, a handful of people screamed at the shock moments, but after we get a gander at the goblins, they only laughed when they should have been trembling. It doesn’t help that an opening prologue set in the 19th century gives away way too much about the gremlins and their activities way too soon.

The creatures themselves, like the film they’re in, are horribly ill-defined. Their vulnerability is said to be bright light…except, apparently, in all the scenes where they scamper about in brightly lit areas. They feed on the teeth of children, but why they do is never adequately explained. The script wants to make them the basis for the story of the Tooth Fairy, but that was already tried in Darkness Falls (another movie about a dark-loving demon with a pill-addled protagonist) and it was just as silly and arbitrary then as it is now. These little inconsistencies add up until, faced with a pile of things that don’t fit well together, the rest of the film’s structure comes into question. The film is obviously set in the current time, but why does Kim give Sally a Polaroid camera from the 1960s? (Answer: because they have enormous and powerful flash bulbs that can be used as plot devices.) Why is the town librarian giving access to locked up and secret records to someone he’s never met before? (Answer: because she’s pretty and she’s got top billing.) You’re too busy asking yourself “Wait. What?” to be afraid of anything, dark or otherwise.

Oh, honey, look at the charming gothic mansion! Nothing bad ever happens in those.

There are dumb movies, and then there are Dumb Movies, movies that seem so brain-dead that they don’t even bring a number 2 pencil to the placement exam. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is one of those movies. It sits at an unsteady and uncomfortable crossroads between grindhouse and arthouse, and it never summons up the wicked black humor of the Grimm fairy tales it so obviously aspires to. Aside from a good performance by Ballie Madison and a pleasantly Elfman-esque score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders, there is very little to recommend except to check out the original (which is, like everything else, on DVD). Or you could just go see The Smurfs. Now, THAT’S scary.

JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and is not afraid of the dark, or ghost, or your mom.<a href="; title="imageimage

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