Friday, September 2, 2011

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars) Fr. Dennis (2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert’s review

Don’t be Afraid of the Dark (directed by Troy Nixey, co-written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins, based on the 1973 movie by the same name by John Newland and Nigel McKaend) is one of an IMHO surprising number of horror genre films that have been released in recent weeks.   Indeed, so large a number of such films has been released in these last four weeks – Final Destination 5, Fright Night, this one, Shark Night, Apollo 18 – that I asked the good people reading the IMBb website’s message boards, if they could tell me why this would be.  After all, this is the late summer, not a few weeks before Halloween.

The consensus from the IMDb readers seems to be that “the late summer” is an “off-season” in the movie business.  All the major summer block busters have been released (and the “Oscar Season” films are generally released late in the year, around December).  So this is actually a fairly good time to release pictures that one’s had “in the can” (in production) but has less confidence in.  The bigger complaint on the IMDb Horror genre board has been that these recent movies have been lackluster and have lacked originality.  Indeed, all of these movies except possibly Apollo 18 have been remakes or sequels, which is not a good sign.  Still there are only a limited number of story lines available to any genre.  So beginning with that limitation, the challenge to genre-film-makers is to add enough variation, originality or otherwise pizzaz to make their new film compelling.  One gets the sense that star Katie Holmes excluded, the makers of this film, Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, were largely just going through the motions.

At its base, Don’t be Afraid of the Dark is a “haunted house” story.  A story teller then is faced then with the task of deciding what/who is going to "haunt" the house and give a plausible explanation as to why.  Finally, as it becomes clear to the characters in the story that “there are problems with the house,” the story teller is given the task of giving a plausible explanation as to why the characters just don’t leave.  Usually, the explanation offered is incredulity --“Honey, there are no such things as ghosts / monsters” -- or some financial reason – “Honey, we put so much money into this damn house” (Ametyville Horror) or “Honey, we came here so that I finish this ($%#!) book, and if I don’t finish it we’ll be broke” (The Shining). 

The makers of this film do take a decent stab at fulfilling these plot necessities.  Alex (played by Guy Pierce) a New England architect with an ex-wife in California buys an old Rhode Island mansion that had once belonged to a 19th century naturalist and painter of wildlife named Blackwood (played by Garry McDonald).  Blackwood is loosely based on the historical 19th century naturalist and wildlife painter John James Audobon, only much creepier. 

What makes Blackwood creepy?  Well, the naturalist paintings of wildlife back then were often rather creepy in themselves.  Remember this was _before photography_.  So wildlife painters were tasked with making photograph-like sketches/paintings of rather rare birds and other wildlife that were precise enough to be used for _scientific_ study.  That made for fairly stiff, rather lifeless drawings.  But at that time, the middle of the 19th century, this was the best available technology (a person with a sketch pad and some drawing pencils) available to communicate what one observed in the field.  Now add to this, the surprise/”horror” that Blackwood encountered when he discovered some really strange creatures living in the crevices under his Rhode Island home... We’re also told in the story that “no one really knew how Blackwood (and his young son) died.”  They just seemed to have disappeared...

So it is Blackwood’s mansion that architect Alex purchases for renovation, and because of the current housing/real estate crisis it’s extremely important for him to do an outstanding job in restoring the house in order to “make a name for himself in his profession,” and thus survive financially.  There are simply _not_ a lot of jobs for architects in the United States today.  And this then forms part of the “sub-text” of this story.

The other part of the “sub-text” comes from Alex’s personal life.  He is divorced.  His ex-wife lives in Southern California and needs him to take their 10 year old daughter Sally (played by Bailee Madison) “for a while.”  Alex has the mansion restoration job that he’s undertaken.  He also has a girlfriend, Kim (played by Katie Holmes), that he’s living-with, but since he’s been married/divorced once, he’s not particularly anxious to marry.  Kim herself was a child of divorce (or otherwise from a troubled home), so she’s not anxious to get married either.  But she is desperate _not_ to be “the evil stepmother” to Sally when Sally arrives dressed in a _needlessly heavy_ if still cute “pink winter coat” on a plane from “sunny Southern California” to “dreary New England in November” near the beginning of the film.  Poor little Sally has been uprooted from her home and forced to live in a cold dreary home with her father and his desperate-to-be-liked girlfriend who she hardly knows.  What a nightmare ...

So when Sally “hears voices” from little creatures saying that “they want to play with her ...” initially she _prefers them_ to happy-face balloon-carrying Kim.  The problem is that these little creatures turn out to be really ugly demon-like fairies who live in the crevices under the earth, who once let out demand human sacrifice. 

So problems ensue ...

The film plays out from there.  One can not but _like_ poor “desperately responsible / desperately trying to be liked” Kim.

But there are problems with this film, both technical and moral.  I happen to agree with Stephen King who writes in The Dance Macabre, his "how to" book on horror genre writing/film making, that unless one has a really well-crafted, credibly-looking monster, it’s probably not good put one on the screen.  Indeed, that’s why ghost stories often work so much better when they are told than when they are put on the screen.  I’ll leave it to the viewers to make their own determination if the fairies in this movie were worth putting on the screen.  (I personally was not particularly impressed). 

The second problem is the movie’s choice of explanation of why we don’t see these demonic fairies more often.  In the story, we are told that Pope Sylvester II had made a pact with the fairies near the turn of the first millenium (1000 AD) banishing them to the subterranean crevices but in turn leaving them alone.  However, if at any time they were set free, as apparently inadvertently by Blackwood (or his young son) when building his home in the 19th century, and apparently happens again during the home’s restorarion, the fairies could demand a human sacrifice before returning to their subterranean lairs.

Here the CNS/USCCB rightly asks why poor Pope Sylvester II had to be sucked into this tale.  It turns out that Pope Sylvester II was a remarkably progressive Pope at his time.  Concerned that Christiandom was being outclassed and buried by a far more intellectually advanced Islamic world, he openly called for and collected as much information and knowledge that was available to him and the Christian world of the time, bringing it all back to Rome.  His more conservative critics of the time, frightened by his willingness to collect knowledge even from the Islamic world and his willingness to be open to even occult/magical and pagan texts. (Let's face it, what else would have been available at the time? and how else could you go through what knowledge actually worked and what did not, except through first collecting what's available and then sifting through it and testing it afterward?)  As such, he was accused by his critics of “having made a pact with the Devil.”  But arguably through his openness to the knowledge existing at his time, he saved Christian Europe, bringing to Europe such innovations as Arabic numerals (without which modern mathematics would be simply impossible) and the Abacus (arguably the first counting machine).  Indeed, today’s computer nerds might find it interesting that Sylvester proved so adept at making rapid calculations using the Abacus that his critics used this as “proof” that he simply had to be "in league with the Devil" :-).  Could Pope Sylvester II become the "patron saint of computer nerds?" ;-)

Anyway, Pope Sylvester II was arguably a progressive Christian hero who saved Christian Europe, and here the film makers made him, once again, someone “in league with the Devil.”

I suppose positively, the movie allows (if utterly by accident) viewers to go back to their Church history books (or to google / wikipedia) and learn about this very interesting pope and about the time and challenges in which he lived.

Would I recommend this movie?  It’s okay, not great.  The R-rating is appropriate.  Some of the scenes really would certainly be very terrifying to young kids (I'm not kidding, the fairies are really, really ugly and occassionally they jump out at you). There’s that needless swipe on an utterly undeserving figure in the Catholic Church who had already been much maligned by misinformed/fearful/ignorant critics of his own time.  Finally, perhaps more than many other films, the movie does leave one to wonder whether many modern couples see any intentionality at all in their relationships.  Alex was married once and divorced.  Why?  We don’t know.  In the movie, he’s shacked-up with Kim and neither he nor she seems at all interested in formalizing their relationship with each other with marriage.  And again, we don’t really know why.

In the end, one’s left wondering whether our relationships today are simply unreflected-upon informal contracts of mutual convenience that we can walk away from when we find something better (or just get bored...).  And, yes, that does seem rather dreary and sad...

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