07 January 2012

Movies: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1270761/


Before I watched the film
This is a remake of the 1973 TV movie "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark". I remember watching this movie as a child, however I haven't seen the film since. All I have are vague shadowy recollections of bits and pieces and a certainty that it scared the crap out of me at the time. I checked to see if it was ever released on DVD. Nope, but I did find that it can special ordered from The Warner Archive. Apparently they burn a copy and mail it to you.  As warm as nostalgic feelings go, I don't think I'm feeling quite that nostalgic about seeing the original again.  If it were available through Netflix, sure, but not quite purchase-strength nostalgic.

Anyhoo - when I heard that it was going to be remade, and that one of the writers/producers is Guillermo del Toro, I knew I had to see this remake. I've enjoyed most of del Toro's work in the past. He's on my 'instant watch' list - if I see his name on something, I'm gonna watch it. So even if I hadn't seen the original I would've watched it.

I can't help but have 'expectations' built up, expectations from vague childhood memories coupled with expectations of del Toro quality. And I realize having expectations is dangerous. I know I'm setting myself up for disappointment if I have high expectations. Especially when expectations are built upon some vague childhood memory foundation.

Hopefully I've learned to better cushion against such negative impacts. For example I anticipated the dangers of childhood memories vs. remake reality prior to watching "Land of the Lost, although I  prepared myself for that purely from its casting alone. Most other remakes I also try to steel against the 'expectations of memory vs. resulting film." Perhaps I can steel myself against potential crushing disappointment prior to viewing this one.

Remakes are mixed bags. Most of the time I don't understand why remake a film that was fine to begin with.  But in this instance the original is not easy to come by and even less known than most remakes hitting the screens lately. I've never seen it around to be watched again since its original airing, nor has it really been easily available in the mean time. Yes it can be had, but I never really knew that until I looked into it. I never would have looked into it because, honestly, I'd rather forgotten it even existed until the remake buzz started.

Just so you know, that's where my head was at before I watched this remake.

After I watched the film
Now that I've watched it, here's my take.

Nice. I have some complaints (I usually do) but overall I liked the film.  Good delivery of a scary atmospheric horror film.  Great for the Saturday night popcorn horror film.

In this take on the story Alex is an interior designer that buys big old houses, restores them, then tries to sell at great profit. Kim is his live-in interior designer/assistant/squeeze.  His whole focus is on completing the restoration, getting a magazine cover spread to up the price and pay off all the loans he took out to buy the house and restore it. Alex's wife (or ex-wife, I'm not exactly sure, the dialog made the situation iffy) sends their daughter Sally across country to live with Alex.
Sally isn't too happy about the situation. She feels abandoned by her mother, especially because the mother said "visit with Dad" not "move in and live with Dad".  She arrives pre-hating Kim for being there and rejects all of Kim's attempts to make friends. She feels her father's distance as he's consumed with the restoration project.
That first night in the house Sally thinks she hears whisperings. The next day she begins exploring the house and grounds and discovers windows that lead to an unknown basement.  The caretaker warns her off, but curiosity gets the better of Alex and Alex soon tracks down a hollow wall that hides the door to the basement.  The basement turns out to be the lost studio the original owner painted his works in. Sally hears more whisperings from behind a bolted-up ash pit grate. Later on Sally sneaks down and begins to unbolt the grate to find out what is whispering to her. She doesn't quite succeed, but whatever is down there finishes the job and now has access to the house.
Then even more scary things start happening.

Stars Guy Pierce as Alex, the "distracted by his career Dad" figure. Katie Holmes as Kim, the "Dad's current squeeze" figure. And little Bailee Madison as Sally, the "child in danger" figure. And wow - that little girl carried almost the whole film on her shoulders. She did good and was generally convincing, even in the situations they called on her to act terrified. Checking Bailee's IMDB I see she's been getting quite a bit of work for a girl so young and apparently I've already seen her in "Conviction" and "Bridge to Terabithia", though I didn't remember.
By the way, I caught right away that Katie Holmes's character is named "Kim" in this version of the film. If I recall correctly in the original it was just Alex and Sally, and Sally was Alex's wife. This version splits the original's "Sally" character into "Kim" and little "Sally". I'm guessing the adult female role is named "Kim" in honor of Kim Darby, the actress that played "Sally" in the original.  I figure by splitting the "Sally" into two roles and making a child the focus of the story it disturbs the viewer a lot more, making it scarier.

The "Alex" character is one of the least developed main roles, he rarely steps beyond the stereotype of being so distracted by his project that he barely interacts with those who should be most important in his life. Yes he does care, and makes attempts to be a father to Sally and companion to Kim, but they are all in-the-moment events. He tends to just be 'authoritarian dad' to Sally. Alex doesn't come around until it's too late. Kim is a little more developed because she pays more attention to Sally and starts realizing much earlier something odd is happening.  The rest of the supporting cast do fine in those roles, supporting the main characters and keeping the story moving. The film focuses mostly on Sally and Sally is the most developed role as a result. As I mentioned before Bailee does great carrying the film in that capacity. But for me the character relationships do seem a bit hollow through most of the film, which might actually be intended by the filmmakers, I'm not sure.

All things considered, scares-wise they did pretty good. There is a bit of mystery that Kim begins investigating concerning the history of the house. The caretaker's relationship to that history is explored a little. But it isn't much of a mystery to us, the viewers.  We already know what is in the house based on the opening sequence before the title credits, and the rest just fills in the details to answer most of the 'whats' and 'whys' concerning the things behind the grate. 

Here is the one thing that bothered me most about the film. We are shown almost right away what is behind the grate during the opening sequence. Come to think of it, the opening sequence is probably the best sequence of the film. I would have preferred to not see them so early in the film, instead just hear whisperings, see shadowy movements and corner-of-the-eye glimpses. There is one key scene where Kim sees them the first time. That would've been THE perfect moment to show us, the viewers, what Sally had already seen. The big reveal after letting our imaginations go wild. However, that's not the case.  We are shown right away what is in the dark we should fear, instead of letting us fear the dark through most of the film.
Another thing - it seems like every adult's solution for crazy shit happening around Sally results in Sally being put to bed. If you watch the film you'll understand why it's such a weird response and disappointing.

I still can't compare this film to its original, I don't remember near enough. Sure, it didn't really scare me the way the original left its lasting impression, but I'm not seven years old either. I can see the film is scary enough, and I think they did pretty good. As I mentioned before, considering the original isn't very accessible I don't particularly mind this remake, which brings a good scary story out for more people to see.

In short Good, but not great. I bet you wish I wrote that way up top, eh?

My biggest fear after all this is that a sequel gets made.

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