The late, great Chicago film critic Gene Siskel used to deplore seeing children in physical danger in a movie. Good thing he couldn’t see the new horror film that just opened in the Chicagoland area this weekend called “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark.” Not only is a young child consistently attacked by brutal little gremlins throughout, but that’s only the start of things to deplore about this wretched excuse for a movie.
Horror movies demand a certain amount of suspended disbelief. Gremlins, vampires, dead custodians with a penchant for gloves made of knives – none of these villains are remotely plausible. But in order to believe a second of this new chiller from filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, one must be lobotomized. It insults the audience’s intelligence at every turn. Every. Single. Turn. It’s inane. The audience I saw it with at the AMC River East 21 sat quietly throughout, the painful silence broken only by exasperated sighs here or there (many of them mine) or giggles at the utter silliness happening on screen.
The problem starts with that premise Mr. Siskel would have despised. A group of vicious little goblins are holed up in a gothic manor and feed on teeth, preferably those of children. The opening scene finds the mansion’s owner in the late 1800’s chiseling out his own teeth, as well as that of his maid, in order to appease these demanding creatures. He thinks their adult teeth will suffice. Boy, is he wrong. Next, the movie flashes forward a hundred years or so and a new family is moving into the restored house and is unaware of its secret history.
Almost immediately the goblins start attacking the little girl named Sally (Bailee Madison). They noisily assault her in her bedroom at night, breaking things and creating havoc in her room. But when Sally’s recently divorced dad (the great Guy Pearce, wasted in a wimpy role) discovers the damage, he thinks his daughter is acting out because she hasn’t yet warmed to his new girlfriend, played by Katie Holmes. (These are the parts that marrying Tom Cruise gets you?)
Then the estate’s handyman is attacked in the basement by the creatures and stabbed with the contents of his tool kit. Still, the dumb family thinks it’s merely an accident even though he’s got a dozen wounds. Of course, everyone falls into their tool kit and gets stabbed a dozen times! This is the kind of logic the film tries to sell, to prolong the drama, but it’s simply absurd. After these odd occurrences, anyone smart would at least bring in the police or an exorcist or exterminators. The least they’d do is remove Sally from danger. But no, they stay. They even let her bathe on her own, after fearing she’s psychotic, and sure enough, she’s attacked again. And yet after all that the family still refuses to leave. Dad’s restoration of the manor is simply much too important, especially when he’s hoping for the cover of Architectural Digest.
Now, at this point, I wanted to walk out of the movie. It had become idiotic. And the characters stopped holding my sympathy. No family would act so heinously unless they were named Manson. As Guy and Katie press on, through a dinner party with hoity-toity guests to show off the mansion, I feared I’d give my own teeth over to the gremlins, by grinding them away in frustration. But I stayed with it to give you a full review. Suffice it to say, I suffered so you don’t have to.The whole thing drags on to a frenzied and prolonged climax with the intrepid imps knocking out both Guy and Katie, but not killing them so the film can have a half dozen false endings, all in pursuit of little Sally’s teeth. There are dozens of these little bastards but they can’t figure out a plan to hold her down and just knock out the teeth they need? One starts asking questions like this while being held hostage through such an ordeal.
Guillermo del Toro is a brilliant filmmaker. “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Hellboy” are remarkable achievements, but his script here, a remake of a 1973 TV-movie, falters from the get-go of the cringe-worthy premise. The direction by Troy Nixey shows some nice touches with lighting, special effects and a taunting score, but none of that makes up for a dreadful premise, a ludicrous script, and characters so stupid that they shouldn’t be allowed to ever have children, let alone restore a fixer-upper.
If you need a horror fix in the theaters, go see a proper remake – “Fright Night.” It’s scary, funny, and its characters act smart throughout. I’m just glad I saw a matinee of “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark” and didn’t pay full price. If I had I would have been just as stupid as all the characters in this dreadfully dumb movie.