DVD Review: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Katie Holmes explores a seriously creepy house.

Katie Holmes explores a seriously creepy house.

There are a few moments in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, an effective but flawed frightfest written and produced by first-class scaremonger Guillermo del Toro, that shred the audience’s nerves like cat claws on curtains, but many more that fall disappointingly flat.

All of the best scares center around the various horrors suffered by pint-sized protagonist Sally Hurst (Bailee Madison) as she investigates a creepy Victorian manor being restored by her apathetic father (Guy Pearce) and his concerned girlfriend (Katie Holmes). Contrary to what the film’s title suggests, she is and should be very afraid of the house’s dark corners, where hundreds of nasty little creatures lurk with sinister plans for Sally.

It’s a solid premise for a horror movie, but also where Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, adapted from the 1973 ABC TV movie of the same name, hits its first snag. Though the film’s setting lends it a nicely spooky atmosphere, the movie’s resident monsters are not nearly as terrifying as they’re meant to be. Part of the problem is that they are rendered in truly egregious CGI far too often, and this robs them of all mystery. The creatures would be much scarier antagonists if they weren’t shown so clearly and instead stayed in the shadows, making only one or two appearances throughout the entire movie. As it is, they’re painfully overexposed and ultimately no more terrifying than Spiderwick Chronicles-style gremlins.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark also suffers from a glut of groan-inducing horror tropes, aside from lazy writing and B-plots abandoned almost as soon as they’re introduced. Flashlights never work when they are supposed to, doors never open when they need to, and smart protagonists uncharacteristically make boneheaded decisions when the script calls for it. Too many scares rely on cheap, predictable jump-out ploys. That being said, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark doesn’t rest on its laurels; it at least tries to make something out of those tropes, ramping up the tension to almost unbearable levels as the film enters its final act.

Madison is the film’s ace in the hole, expertly communicating Sally’s curiosity, naivety, loneliness, and anger in just a few glances whenever she’s on screen. She’s a lively, three-dimensional character with believable strengths and weaknesses. Thanks to Madison’s emotive performance, Sally is the only character audiences will be hoping gets out alive. Unfortunately, not so much for Holmes and Pearce. The two are resigned to bland, static roles, though Holmes tries harder to make her reluctant mother character admirable and sympathetic than Pearce, who simply chews the scenery.

Despite some nerve-fraying scenes and a palpable sense of dread that permeates the entire movie, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark never breaks away from its script’s piled clichés to become a bona fide horror movie on its own terms. The most disappointing thing about the film is del Toro himself. Though his name is slapped across the cover, his influence is nowhere to be found. The creatures hold none of the majesty, beauty, or mystery of other del Toro creations, and the film’s scares are never as effective or thoughtful as those in his other projects.

Though its ability to build tension is admirable, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark squanders a promising premise with a lousy script and lacks the richer psychological scares of the original TV movie. Madison and Holmes give it their all, but their performances are undermined by the script’s mediocrity and lackluster special effects. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is ultimately an example of a perfectly serviceable horror flick that could have been so much more. B-

 

Image Courtesy: Miramax.

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Review: Pacific Rim

A damaged Jaeger collapses after a battle in 'Pacific Rim.'

A damaged Jaeger collapses after a battle in ‘Pacific Rim.’

Director Guillermo del Toro clearly never identified with those people who live by the adage ‘less is more.’ His movie Pacific Rim, a sci-fi epic that pits human-powered robots against giant monsters, is as colossal a summer blockbuster as there ever was or ever will be. Del Toro’s greatest directorial challenge is ensuring that it never collapses under its own weight. Miraculously, he pulls it off. Pacific Rim succeeds against all odds; it’s a visually dazzling powerhouse that packs both emotional resonance and an unfailing sense of fun. In a word, it’s awesome. In two words, it’s really awesome.

As towering human-powered robots called Jaegers fight even larger monsters called Kaijus to save humankind from annihilation, the sheer size of Pacific Rim‘s action is jaw-dropping. Even more shocking is how Del Toro miraculously keeps the film’s battle sequences coherent and clear, never losing his footing despite the film’s scale. It’s a testament to his talent that a scene’s action can encompass an entire city without the audience losing track of what’s what.  

Pacific Rim‘s top-notch cast also helps the movie soar, particularly Idris Elba, who’s outstanding as stoic commanding officer Stacker Pentecost. His performance, complete with booming voice, soulful eyes, and surprising emotional depth, demands the audience’s attention. The chemistry between leads Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi, two unlikely Jaeger pilots who become humanity’s last hope against the Kaijus, is also terrific. Del Toro staple Ron Perlman shows up to deliver some cheesy but still great lines as larger-than-life black marketeer Hannibal Chau. And Charlie Day nearly steals the show as an energetic scientist studying the monsters, providing laughs and heart in equal measure.

However, the biggest thing that Pacific Rim has going for it is ever-present energy, courtesy of del Toro. This is his ode to the Japanese monster movies of his youth, executed with due reverence, visual gusto and expert aplomb. No matter how large the action gets, del Toro successfully emulates the simple magic of a kid playing with toys in a sandbox, letting the audience bask in that youthful exuberance as well. His boundless enthusiasm for the genre shines through.

Although Pacific Rim‘s action sequences take up a huge chunk of the movie, they never feel drawn out or artificial. One colossal battle in Hong Kong is terrific fun, both exciting and remarkably innovative. A smaller-scale martial arts scene with fighting sticks is just as cool to watch. And the film’s grand finale, a fast and furious fight to the death on the ocean floor, is a thrilling pièce de résistance.

Throughout the film, Del Toro’s confident direction allows the film to take risks with its narrative and cinematography, and those risks pay off tremendously. For one, Pacific Rim doesn’t shy away from the human cost of war against the Kaijus, capturing both the perspectives of civilians caught in crossfire and of the monster-mashing pilots. As such, the most devastating moment of the movie comes early on, as a terrified young girl finds herself in a Kaiju’s path of destruction. Additionally, the direction often highlights the strange beauty of the movie’s creatures – both the Jaegers and Kaijus are wondrous to behold, dazzling CGI behemoths which move with an almost celestial grace at times.

The only time when Pacific Rim ever really stumbles is when it overreaches with its story. Some ideas the script puts forth about the origins of the Kaijus don’t sit well, and other plot points in the story’s set-up are undeniably weak. But even with those few shortcomings, Pacific Rim ultimately succeeds both as a tribute to Japanese monster movies and a resuscitation of the same. Any gripes with the plot don’t even register once Hunnam and Kikuchi strap into their Jaeger and throw down with fearsome Kaijus in any of the film’s breathtaking action sequences.

As far as action goes, there’s no better film to see this summer. Pacific Rim is an imaginative and thrilling popcorn-pleasure spectacle that doesn’t let gargantuan scale sacrifice a big heart and sense of fun. What more do you need to hear? Go get lost in Del Toro’s crazy-cool childhood fantasy, and experience the breathtaking grandeur of his fully-realized vision for yourself. You’ll be glad you did. A-

Photo Courtesy: Warner Bros.