Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Halloween 2011: September 16th

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)
I can see why this movie would have such a strong effect on young viewers back in the seventies. The fear of the dark is a natural human reaction, and this film makes nice uses of shadows. It has some fantastic atmosphere. The big, old house combined with the deep shadows and the insidious, creeping creatures make for spooky viewing. The film generates some nice suspense too, especially in the shower sequence and its dark (both literally and figuratively) finale. Considering the television origins, the sound design is pretty good too. (The creepy whispers are indeed as effective as the fans say.)

Kim Darby gives a good performance, properly conveying her character’s fear without going overboard into hysterics. It’s often easy, when a story hinges on characters not believing our protagonist, for people to become shrill or annoying. This movie nicely avoids that problem, making Sally’s husband and friends concerned, but skeptical, and when things get serious, they do go over to the believing side.

While the film is pretty good, especially by TV movie standards, and certainly succeeds as a horror film, I think a great deal of nostalgia is clouding the fans' perception. (It would probably be much more effective for a child.) The threatening imps are portrayed as small, furry little humanoids and aren’t completely convincing. While the downbeat ending is surprising and creepy, it’s a bit too cryptic and doesn’t explain much. Moreover, the carpenter character exists just to drop a load of exposition on the audience before the end. The latest DVD edition, which is still a movie-on-demand title for some reason, is supposedly remastered, but the older copy I’ve got has a dark, murky quality to it that is definitely a detriment to the film. However, the movie does deserve its cult classic status, I’d say. It’s certainly a neat, effective variation on the old dark house formula. (7/10)

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)
It’s fun to watch an original and its remake back to back. It’s easy to say that this version of “Dark” is superior if for no other reasons then its higher production values. The middle class manor of the original film has been upgraded to a sprawling, gothic mansion. Right from the beginning, it’s obvious this movie was directed by a designer. For example, the mansion’s door is done in amber glass, with creeping tree branches overlaid over it, which is just one of several fantastic images here. It might not be fair to the humble, TV original, but its hard to beat the level of atmosphere a giant, sprawling mansion affords you.

Another major, great update to the film is switching the character from an adult woman to a child. This is an important change for several reasons. Fear of the dark is something I think every child experiences. Parents and adults not believing the little kid who’s on to something might be a horror cliché, but it’s a potent convention for a reason, and this movie enlivens it. Best of all, Sally, as played by Bailee Madison, is a fantastic character. She’s a sad little girl, who likes to be alone, is intensely curious, and loves to explore. Her parents are both incredibly remote, her mother just a voice on the phone and her father obsessed with his work, which makes her isolation even more severe. Naturally, that curiosity gets her in a lot of trouble. But it also affords her a lot of strength. Sally is one of the strongest female heroine I’ve seen in recent year, even more so considering she’s not even ten years old. She is a child character in a horror movie that is rounded, developed, and actually interesting, an even rarer occurrence. The supporting cast is solid too. Katie Holmes hasn’t aged too well, but she does a decent job as the only person who really seems to believe her step-daughter. Guy Pierce is fine, but mostly a cipher.

Another improvement over the original is the monsters. I mention above that the miniature sasquatches of the original weren’t exactly intimidating. Here, the creatures are tiny, withered rat-like imps, all long limbs, teeth, bright eyes, and claws. The CGI effects are extremely good.

(Two minor asides here: First off, Guillermo del Toro is obviously terrified of the tooth fairy. This is the second time one of his production have portray the generally benign mythological creature as a vicious killer that feeds on teeth. And here’s something I think about both films: Both would be more effective if we didn’t see the creatures in either, just squirming shadows. Just a thought.)

The movie is, gratefully, fantastically, completely free of jump-scares. It’s score is subtle and all about building atmosphere, playing like a lullaby laced with soft dread. While the movie eventually overdoes it with the number of monsters on-screen, it never goes for the cheap scare. Instead, it taps nicely into childhood fears, of monsters in the dark, seeing things that may or may not be there, and the total lack of control over your life. The most famous scenes from the original: the shower, the dinner table, and being dragged down the stairs; are all given a reprise. The creepy whispering is back, and is perhaps even more effective then before. The ending is changed, and doesn’t go quite as dark. You’ll probably be able to see it coming. The movie does actually explain the imp’s motivation and expounds on their mythology quite a bit more then the original. While this information is nice, it’s dropped as a lump of exposition in the middle of the movie courtesy of a one-scene librarian.

Guillermo del Toro’s fingerprints are all over this project. The scenes of a little girl exploring a terrifying fantasy is straight out of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and the childhood perspective recalls similar scenes in “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Mimic.”

“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is far from a perfect film but, in a day and age when most horror films are content to simply shock or disgusts, it goes for real scares, rooted in deep childhood fears. It doesn’t always get them but it piles on fantastic atmosphere, if nothing else. (8/10)

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