Hey, it’s BlockBluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during what sorts of movies regular people all over the country are fearing the dark. This week they wish Troy Nixey’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark were lighter.
So, Henry, we could probably piece together the entire plot of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark by citing the various generic precedents from which it draws so joylessly—much as we might’ve done last week with Conan the Barbarian and every sandy fantasy action movie ever made. Like how its evil little critters are part New York City rat, part Gremlin, or that its creepy Rhode Island mansion alternately evokes The Shining‘s Overlook Hotel and that British estate from The Others. But for expediency’s sake let’s just say that Sally’s (Bailee Madison) neglectful mother sends her to live with her equally inattentive father Alex (Guy Pearce), who with his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) is restoring a haunted historic house. Rather than bemoan how hackneyed and humorless this remake is, though, it seems to me there’s a pretty strong class war subtext here. Sure, the housekeeper and contractor are sympathetic characters, but aren’t the hungry furballs basically lower-class-coded monsters? They scurry about in the basement, where servants traditionally worked; they hide in a chimney that, a century earlier, a servant would have kept roaring to heat the richers upstairs; like the proletariat, they’re only effective in large, organized groups. What do you think, Henry, should Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark really be title “Don’t Be Afraid of Your Unstable Class Position”? That’s pretty catchy.
Uh, totally, Ben. I wonder if it’s too late for Miramax to recall the prints to change the title card? I’d say Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a Gothic haunted-house movie (or a haunted Gothic-house movie?) that very, very closely follows the tropes established by all of its forebears (and if we’re listing some, don’t forget The Orphanage, also produced by Guillermo del Toro)—except its monsters are super campy but its tone is super serious, like Gremlins without a single wink or smile. What a huge mistake. Anyway, what relevance do haunted-house movies have now? If there’s a modicum of intelligence in their design, they can’t help but comment on our housing situation, right? If this movie does any business—and that’s a big “if”—it’ll probably be because it tapped into Americans’ new fears of their homes, brought on by the foreclosure crisis. In this remake, the house—or, rather, its hell-deep foundation (the mortgage?)—tears its family apart, but also brings it closer together, much like a defaulted loan can, depending on the circumstances.
So it’s like this summer’s Drag Me to Hell? I guess, but Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark struck me as more of a parody of those extreme home makeover shows, where a roving team of renovation experts turns a family’s ugly house pretty—also mixed with hints of a ghost-chasing show. (Those exist, right? Right.) Alex (Pearce) and Kim (Holmes) are basically an upscale version of the protagonists of reality TV programs like Run My Renovation and Rehab Addict—which apply the Pimp My Ride principle to houses—except they’re vying for the cover of Architectural Digest. The film’s whole intrigue basically boils down to seeing how evil and awful the house’s fuzzy inhabitants can become before Alex and Kim abandon their exhaustive restoration project. Answer: until one of them dies! And, befitting this homage to the home renovation reality TV subgenre, I actually liked director Troy Nixey and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton’s acute sensitivity to architectural continuity; I feel like I could draw a blueprint of that house! This was a welcome change from all the incomprehensibly choreographed camera movements we’ve seen in Transformers, Conan, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and countless other films. Was there anything about Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark that you found even remotely successful or worthwhile, Henry?
Well, Ben, I similarly enjoyed the movie’s visual efficiency. First-time director Troy Nixey (who totally looks like a “Troy Nixey”) comes from comic books, but he doesn’t make the kinds of mistakes first-time directors often do, like indulging in abject realism. Aesthetically, comics thrive on graphic concision—the implied action between panels, or in the space outside them—the same way good writers choose their words wisely and sparingly. And Nixey’s economically edited shots accomplish something like that. But, visual competence? Whoop de doo. The first-timer mistake he does make is a doozy—it’s his fealty to narrative and thematic cliches, his indulgence of a presumed insecurity in a new medium that makes him play it so numbingly safe. It’s the kind of problem theater directors often have when they switch to movies. I thought Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which, WTF, exposes the dark origins of the tooth-fairy myth, had the opposite problem as last week’s Conan, but a problem just as serious: instead of nonstop action, it’s nonstop set-up—all development without, say, rich themes. Or characters. Or laughs. Or scares. Or depth. Or allegory. Or novelty. Or intelligence. Or, therefore, audience investment in the eventual release.