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Movie Review: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)

In many genre movies, there is a skeptical character who is made out to be foolish, callous or even antagonistic simply because they don’t believe in something commonly held not to exist. They don’t believe in whatever otherworldly thing plagues the protagonist, be it vampire, zombie, ghost, alien or something else. Often times their disbelief descends into denial when directly confronted by incontrovertible evidence of the preternatural, at which point it’s understandable for that character to be portrayed as an idiot at best, and a hindrance our hero’s survival at worst. But before that moment, when they simply don’t accept an unsubstantiated assertion that there is a Fortean foe about? Why are they often presented as such an obnoxious nuisance then? Isn’t it reasonable for them not to believe, particularly when they’re seeking other, more conventional solutions–giving some credence to notion of the threat, if failing to understand the specific nature of it?

Well, the simple answer to the above is that we as audience members know that the ghosts and monsters are real. We know it even before the protagonist knows it, much less the film’s designated skeptic. Such is the case in 2010’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a remake of television-film from the 1973. In both films, the man of the house is a fairly ardent disbeliever until things have escalated too far, while a pair of the ladies (the wife and her friend in the ’73 film; the girlfriend and daughter in the remake) are more keen to what’s going on.

Useless, skeptical dudes isn’t exactly a new development in horror. In fact, the skepticism of the male in the story tends to be a lot more reckless and indefensible in many “Golden Age of Radio” horror stories. There you’d have men consistently disbelieve their more intuitive wives and girlfriends despite directly encountering inexplicable phenomenon relatively early in the story. Or even remaining oblivious to very practical, realistic threats. In “Stone’s Revenge” by The Hall of Fantasy, for instance, two dudes vacationing with a lady-friend both manage to be blissfully unaware that a stranger who’s stopped at their door fits the exact description of an escaped homicidal maniac they just heard about on the radio; the far more astute woman of the group notices this immediately.

Anyway, I think my point here is that the “trope” of some guys needing to have their throats ripped out before they believe an evil throat ripper is on the loose dates back several decades and isn’t something I’m unused to seeing in the genre. So when a character comes off as a particularly annoying skeptic, it really stands out and damages my perception of the work.

The interesting thing is that Alex, played by Guy Pearce in the 2010 film, isn’t annoying in the typical manner. He’s not a jerk to his daughter. He’s not unfeeling or uncaring regarding the dangers she claims to face inside the house she’s been brought to. Given how his daughter, Sally, has been lied to and manipulated by her mother, it’s understandable that he thinks she just needs therapy and not, I don’t know, a blowtorch or something to contend with the little demon-creatures that we know are stalking her, but that he understandably thinks don’t exist.

But what’s not understandable is why he doesn’t just get her out of the house. At various points the house comes across as unsafe (“accidents” are had in the house, razors and knives are going missing, a groundskeeper warns that the entire property was founded over a giant sinkhole and the grounds are generally no place for children). Sally expresses feeling unsafe and at one point tries to run away. Kim (Alex’s girlfriend) points out that these feelings are real to the girl (regardless of “tiny tooth-fairy monsters are coming to get me” sounding perfectly implausible), and is also finding out some rather disturbing things about the history of the house. And the kicker is, it’s not even a permanent residence. This isn’t some place Alex is insisting must be their new home. It’s an old, giant mansion he is restoring for a (surely lucrative) sale for a specific client. He’s even having the his client over for a big dinner to celebrate completion of the restoration, which of course just leads to the monsters taking the opportunity to attack Sally again.

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By that point, Sally and Kim are adamant about leaving the house immediately. So why not just put them up in a hotel until you close the sale? Alex can’t abandon the property because he says he has “every cent” tied up into this project, but surely he doesn’t have literally every cent tied up in flipping this old mega-manor. What if the house didn’t sell? Are you just going to be on the street? Of course not. You have money to find some lodging for Sally and Kim, and by the way, getting them out of the house would work out better for your big business dinner anyway.

So keeping them in the house for no reason other than “just because” turns Alex into an exceptional horror movie idiot.

It’s especially distracting in this film because the movie has potential and is very well acted. Bailee Madison and Katie Holmes are tremendous as Sally and Kim respectively, and Guy Pearce might be incapable of a bad performance. Their interactions with one another are so good it made me want this to stop being a horror movie and just stick with being a family drama.

Unfortunately the writing (among other flaws) undercut the movie’s key strength. Alex’s arbitrary idiocy (his character would have made more sense if he’d been more unsympathetic and callous) is the most prominent example of sketchy writing. When Alex finally does agree to leave the house, presumably because he believes the threat is at least somewhat real, there’s still no sense of urgency, solely because if there was then the characters couldn’t be put in peril one last time. The creatures allegedly don’t like light (hence the title), and can be chased off by a camera flash, but aren’t bothered by lightning flashes or other sources of light when the movie finds it more convenient to ignore this weakness. And the movie ends with one character abducted by the creatures (fine, nothing inherently wrong with an unhappy ending), but also with one of the creatures smashed dead (…wait…). That smashed body should be something that the survivors could take to the authorities and media as evidence of what happened, which in turn could help them round some people up to at least attempt a rescue mission (They don’t do that?), but instead they just let that person stay abducted (What the hell?).

While the original film is a fairly well-regarded specimen of its era (the curiously glorious period of prominence for made-for-TV horror), the 2010 remake is a bit of a missed opportunity. In fairness, the earlier film is bolstered in the hearts and memories of many by probably having lower expectations. Its shorter runtime also helps; being a TV movie it could clock in at 74-minutes. The remake is 25% longer, more in line with a feature-length, big screen film, and suffers for having to figure out what to do with that additional time. In the end, it’s not stylish, atmospheric, clever or scary enough to keep your mind from wandering into wanting to pick apart its particulars. Which is unfortunate because, again, the cast is giving it their damnedest.

Final Grade: The writing ultimately lets down the performances, which are worthy of a better film.

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