Pacific Rim (2013)
by Steve Habrat
These days, it is extremely difficult and rare for a major Hollywood studio to take a creative risk, especially during the hot and humid summer months when audiences turn out in droves. The suits fall back on time-tested franchises, overdone remakes, comic book heroes with built-in audiences, and winded sequels that guarantee them a major worldwide hit. Take this summer, for example, as we have seen another Marvel megahit with Iron Man 3, a grim reboot of the Man of Steel, two familiar animated sequels (Monsters University and Despicable Me 2), a Brad Pitt led zombie blockbuster based off of a wildly popular novel by Max Brooks (World War Z), and another installment in the Star Trek series. While I have enjoyed all of the films I’ve pointed out here, I’ve still craved something fresh and creatively stimulating. Enter Guillermo del Toro, a man with a vivid imagination and a knack for serving up some seriously zesty cinematic efforts, both big (Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army) and small (Cronos, Pan’s Labyrinth). After a lengthy hiatus from the director’s chair, we finally have a new summer blockbuster from del Toro and that film is the astonishing giant monster-giant robot mash-up Pacific Rim, a pulpy blast of rainbow science fiction that is exactly what the cinema doctor ordered. Seconds, please!
Pacific Rim begins by explaining that giant monsters known as “Kaiju” have crawled out of a portal beneath the Pacific Ocean and stomped into our cities. Unable to bring them down with the weapons we already have, the world develops a new weapon called “Jaegers,” which are giant robots capable of tossing around the raging “Kaiju.” After several exhausting years of battle, the “Jaegers” grow less and less effective in keeping the “Kaiju” at bay. The united governments of Earth grow weary of the giant robots and they decide to cut funding for their construction. The remaining “Jaegers” are shipped off to Hong Kong, where they are left to rust away and fade from memory. The remaining “Jaeger” program is left to Commander Stacker Pentecost (played by Idris Elba), who is determined to keep the “Jaegers” fighting the good fight. Stacker approaches washed-up “Jaeger” pilot Raleigh Becket (played by Charile Hunnam), who piloted the American “Jaeger” Gipsy Danger but quit when he watched his brother die in combat, about rejoining the program in a final attempt to prevent the imminent apocalypse. Raleigh agrees and begins training to find a suitable co-pilot, which he finds in the scrappy “Jaeger” test pilot Mako Mori (played by Rinko Kikuchi). Meanwhile, bickering scientists Dr. Newton Geizler (played by Charlie Day) and Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (played by Burn Gorman) have assembled a machine that allows them to establish a mental link with the “Kaiju” and discovered that the giant monsters are in fact genetically-bred weapons sent to wipe out the human race so that their masters can colonize the planet.
While many will be quick to label Pacific Rim as a Transformers wannabe, the film has so much more to offer than one of those Michael Bay abominations. This candy-colored gem is an exhilarating ode to Toho Co., the Japanese production company that is responsible for releasing giant monster movies (called “kaiju” movies, which is Japanese for “giant monster”) like 1954s Godzilla. While Pacific Rim certainly tips its hat to Godzilla and his family of rampaging atomic beasts (Rodan, Mothra, etc.), del Toro’s vision is something completely singular. The story line is carried by the myriad of colorful characters, which consistently stand apart from the astonishing special effects and towering action sequences that are loud enough to wake up the two people sleeping through The Lone Ranger in the neighboring theater. In the vein of Toho, the action is relentless, especially the neon fist-fight between a handful of “Jaegers” and a couple of seriously nasty “Kaiju” in the middle of downtown Hong Kong. It’s a rock ‘em-sock ‘em moment of pure adrenaline ecstasy that will have adults and children cheering in delight. But the thrills don’t stop there, as del Toro keeps uping the ante and powering up his beasts for a show-stopping underwater brawl boosted by a nuclear fizz.
While the heavy metal CGI action is a must-see, Pacific Rim is a very human film and one brimming with performances that will beckon you back for more. Del Toro proves that you don’t necessarily need a Brad Pitt, Robert Downey Jr., or Johnny Depp in the thick of the action to keep the audience absorbed in what is playing out before them. All you need is colorfully drawn characters with fragile emotion tucked delicately inside the layered armor. The relatively unknown Hunnam is out for blood as Raleigh, and I mean that in the best possible way. He is the all-American good guy—one that is nursing deep wounds but is eager to deliver a one-two hit to the massive monsters that wade through the Pacific. His chemistry is exceptional with Kikuchi, who isn’t the same old love interest (It is hinted at but never addressed outright. Perhaps in the sequel.). Kikuchi is heartwarming as the girl with a shy crush, but she is a lightning bolt of vengeance when we are allowed to glimpse inside her broken heart. These two animated leads are kept on a short leash by Elba’s no-nonsense father figure, who pops pills for a life-threatening illness and delivers pulse-pounding speeches about meeting the “monsters that are at our door” and “canceling the apocalypse.”
While our three leads do an incredible job, the supporting players are certainly something to behold. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day is a quirky and fun choice as the tattooed “Kaiju” scientist Newton, who rambles and shakes like a hipster lunatic in oversized specs. Surprisingly, he isn’t here simply to act as the comic relief, which really is a testament to his talent. Burn Gorman is great as Day’s uber-nerd partner Hermann, who pounds on a chalkboard and hobbles around like a comic book Albert Einstein with high-waisted pants and a cane. Clifton Collins Jr. is a treat as Tendo Choi, an Elvis-like greaser “Jaeger” whiz who is determined to spice up the role of the guy who simply sits behind the computer screen and acts as a guide to the heroes in the field. Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky are great tough guys as Hercules and Chuck Hansen, a tough-as-nails Australian father-son duo tasked with a beast of a mission. The pint-sized Mana Ashida is fantastic in her minor role as a young Mako Mori. She basically just cries and wanders around with a shoe in her hand, but she sent chills down my spine with her raw emotion. Last but certainly not least is the always-welcome Ron Perlman as Hannibal Chau, a blinged-out black marketeer in sinister goggles who tracks down and deals “Kaiju” organs. He shares some wonderful moments with Charlie Day’s twitchy scientist.
Considering that Pacific Rim is a tribute to Atomic Age creature features, there are numerous nods to Godzilla and many other Toho releases. I certainly smiled when Hong Kong citizens were locked into an underground shelter and huddled together as “Kaiju” footsteps boomed overhead, something that called to mind the original Godzilla. There is also a sly little tribute to the flare tactic used to keep Godzilla away from a blacked out city in Godzilla Raids Again and there is a magnificent aerial moment that sung praises to Rodan and Mothra. If there is something I absolutely need to criticize, there are a few moments where the action was a bit incoherent, but these moments are few and far between. Overall, while Pacific Rim doesn’t ever get as political and poetic as those post-World War II efforts did, there is still something deeply personal about del Toro’s vision. It is coming from the heart and it is a beautifully written love letter to the monster movies that del Toro loved as a kid. This film is a labor of love, a carefully crafted summer epic that earns its action sequences and doesn’t ever forget to remain human.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
by Steve Habrat
With 2004’s Hellboy turning out to be a modest success, Guillermo del Toro was allowed to let a myriad of head spinning monsters out of his imagination in 2008’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army, a bigger, wilder, and groovier monster movie romp than his predecessor. Loaded with tons more ghouls to roam around, The Golden Army is shoulder to shoulder with some of the most exhaustive make-up effects put on film in the past several years. It helps that del Toro shifts from Revolution Studios to Universal Studios, home of the original monster movie, to really make the ultimate tribute to the classic Universal monsters of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. The Golden Army also finds more enthusiastic devotion from Ron Pearlman, who seems like he was chomping at the bit to get covered in red make-up and have two filed down horns slapped on his forehead. Tapping into the reckless ennui that he so wonderfully applied in Hellboy, The Golden Army finds our big red hero dealing with relationship problems, pent up longing to interact with the outside world, fatherhood (!) and that nagging problem of having to save the world. Again. It’s all in a day’s work for Hellboy, the beer sipping, cat loving man-child.
The Golden Army begins with Hellboy’s (Played by Pearlman) relationship with pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Played by Selma Blair) on the rocks. She exclaims that she can no longer stand living in Hellboy’s pigsty and that she needs some space. Hellboy confides in his best buddy Abe Sapien (Played by Doug Jones), the geeky psychic amphibious humanoid who always acts as the voice of reason for Red. To make things worse, Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense Agent Tom Manning (Played by Jeffrey Tambor) is steaming mad at Hellboy for continuing to reveal himself to the public, despite the fact that the B.P.R.D is supposed to be kept a secret. After being called to investigate strange events at an auction house, Hellboy finds the perfect opportunity to reveal himself to the world and make it look like an accident. Hellboy isn’t welcomed into the world with open arms, many people taunting him for his striking appearance but that is the least of Hellboy’s problems. Agent Manning brings in a new authority figure by the name of Johann Krauss (Played by James Dodd and voice by Seth MacFarlane), a figure that wears a containment suit shaped like a human but that holds in pure ectoplasmic energy. Hellboy, Liz, and Abe begin rebelling against Johann but it is soon discovered that a mythical realm has declared war on the humans and that they plan to unleash the Golden Army, an invincible force that would destroy the human race.
Much like Hellboy, The Golden Army runs smoother when del Toro aims his camera at the sheltered trio of crime fighters who long for human interaction. It finds Hellboy staring down fatherhood, but it is hard to see the guy as a papa when he downs six packs of Tecate and stumbles around with Abe as they gripe about girls. The best moment of The Golden Army comes when Abe drunkenly spills his feelings about a girl that the trio is supposed by protecting. You’ll crack up when the duo begins slurring through love songs played at full blast. It is a delight to see the group bring their problems to work, all of them complaining on the job to each other but banding together when the bad monsters come out to play. The Golden Army also deals with the trio trying to fit in with the average citizens of New York City. They are teased on the street about their freakish appearances, something that really irks the testy Hellboy who responds with, “I know I’m ugly!” You’ll feel for the big red ape, especially when Hellboy saves a baby from a giant monstrosity and the mother rips the baby away from Hellboy in horror, something that really pierces the big guy’s heart.
The Golden Army would be nothing without Pearlman, Blair, and Jones, all who get their moment to really push their characters along. Pearlman is an absolute delight as Hellboy and I can honestly say I’d watch twenty Hellboy movies if he were in every one. Watching him try to mature and cater to Liz is hysterical, especially when he finds her toothbrush in a tin of cat food. Pearlman’s enjoyment with the roll is incredibly contagious and we find ourselves having just as much fun as he is. Blair perks up a bit here as Liz, but she is still the goth girl hero in combat boots that we came to adore the first time around. It is good to see her sulking about a troubled relationship and a secret she is desperately trying to hide from Red. Then there is Jones as Abe, who gets a tongue-tying crush of his own—one that he begins to realize will not end happily ever after. Then there is James Dodd and Seth MacFarlane’s Johann, a prickly voice of authority that successfully stands up to the boorish Hellboy. As far as the villains go, Hellboy finds himself battling against the fed up Prince Nuada (Played by Luke Goss) and his timid twin sister Princess Nuala (Played by Anna Walton). The elfish Nuada never really becomes an intimidating force to reckon with, the only catch being that if you harm Nuada, you can also harm Nuala. This puts the group at odds, especially when Abe develops feeling for the gentle Nuala. This is where The Golden Army flat lines, the lack of a truly compelling villain to really curl your toes. Luckily, that is why all those spine-tingling monsters are here!
Being a superhero movie, The Golden Army is filled out with plenty of action and adventure. A showdown in the streets between Hellboy and a giant forest god is beautiful and adrenaline pumping. Another battle between Hellboy and Nuada’s grotesque bodyguard Mr. Wink is also a standout. Del Toro ends his film in a grand, epic fashion by pitting the group against the marching Golden Army, the best fight scene of the entire film. While the film’s plotline may begin to creak and crack under the style that it is trying so desperately to hold up, the style practically superglues and staples your eyes to the screen. It makes you long for more movies from del Toro, ones where he can have all the artistic freedom he wants. Also, if Universal plans on remaking anymore of their classic monster movies, I think it would be wise to hand the project over to this guy. Still, I wish del Toro would have developed the underlying message of nature and man living in harmony a bit more than he does but this is a summer blockbuster and I’m sure there was a push for more eye candy and action. It just so happens that del Toro excels at eye candy as Hellboy II: The Golden Army has some of the tastiest eye candy around. Here’s to more monster movies in del Toro’s future!
Hellboy II: The Golden Army is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
I wish that audiences paid more attention to visionary director Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 superhero film Hellboy, a funky and gothic monster mash that practically explodes with creativity. Based on Mike Mignola’s Dark Horse comic book of the same name, Hellboy seems like an absurd premise but because del Toro gives his ragtag group of ghouls a human heart, the film becomes a real charmer. Credit should also go to Ron Pearlman’s performance as the big red crime fighter who loves a good cigar, has a hopeless crush on a colleague, weakens at the knees for a Baby Ruth, and just can’t resist a kitten. While many may not be able to wrap their heads around a demonic superhero, Hellboy rewards those who will give him a chance with tons of monster-on-monster brawls, nightmarish critters who prowl the subways of New York City, and plenty of quirky one liners to really allow Hellboy himself to come to life. Oh, and did I mention young love? While Hellboy hasn’t aged particularly well since its release, del Toro keeps things timeless by his use of tons of outstanding make-up and icky puppets that will simultaneously make your skin crawl and give you nightmares. Not bad for a comic book movie.
Hellboy begins during the final days World War II, taking us to a stormy island off the coast of Scotland where a handful of American soldiers and the young Professor Broom (Played by John Hurt) are spying on a small band of Nazi soldiers performing a strange occult ritual that would awaken “The Seven Gods of Chaos”, monstrous creatures that slumber in another dimension. This ritual is being led by Grigori Rasputin (Played by Karel Roden), his mistress, Ilsa (Played by Bridget Hodson), and monitored by the gas-masked Kroenen (Played by Ladislav Beran), Hitler’s top assassin. The American soldiers attack half way through the ritual and stop the Nazi’s before any dangerous creatures get through the portal that has been opened. Rasputin manages to get sucked through the portal and shrapnel kills Kroenen, or so the Americans think, but the world is saved from annihilation. As the soldiers and Professor Broom explore the site, they discover a strange little creature that is all red and has a massive stone hand. Professor Broom determines that the creature means no harm and begins looking after the little fella. The soldiers decide to name the creature “Hellboy” due to his bizarre and demonic appearance. Fast-forward to present day where adult Hellboy (Played by Ron Pearlman) works for a super secret organization called the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. With the help of the psychic amphibious humanoid Abe Sapien (Played by Doug Jones), beautiful pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Played by Selma Blair), rookie agent John Meyers (Played by Rupert Evans), and Professor Broom, Hellboy battles bizarre critters that mean to unleash destruction on Earth.
Hellboy wins the audience over instantly with Ron Pearlman’s devoted performance as Hellboy, a towering man-child who files his horns down to fit in with society, something that he never sees yet longs for. He ends up grounded by Professor Broom for sneaking out of the underground facility he calls his home and having a picture snapped of him, which inevitably ends up on the news. Debates rage over the existence of Hellboy on talk shows, all theories debunked by Tom Manning (Played by Jeffery Tambor), a grouchy FBI Director who loathes the big red beast. It is a blast when Hellboy sneaks out on Halloween to meet up with Liz, who has checked herself in to a mental institution after multiple accidents that involve her fiery ability. He steals a six-pack and begs Liz to have a good time but she is reluctant, which deflates the lovable oaf. It is in these little moments that we really find ourselves rooting for Hellboy, even more than we do when he is rumbling with a drooling demonic creature with tentacles slithering out of its head. In fact, his job almost looks like it gets on his nerves and is just a giant inconvenience. Things really get tough for Hellboy when Meyers begins moving in on Liz, a move that drives Hellboy bonkers. This sets a knee-slapping immature rivalry into motion that culminates in Hellboy, who has a chocolate chip cooking dangling from his mouth, tossing stones at Meyers, who is trying the old yawn and stretch trick to put his arm around Liz. Boys will be boys!
While Pearlman steals the show, his supporting players are not too shabby themselves. Blair was born to play the perpetually frowning Liz, who curls inside wool coats with a hat pulled over her jet-black bangs, wearing a withdrawn look on her pretty face. She becomes a gothic heroine to a million girls in black t-shirts and combat boots. And then there is Doug Jones as the slinky Abe Sapien, a soft-spoken and thoughtful sidekick who tries to keep Hellboy in check. He is the cool head to the loose cannon (del Toro symbolically represents that in their skin color, cool blue on Abe and hot head red on Hellboy). Tamobor is hilarious as Tom Manning, who is consistently appalled by the belligerent behavior of his horned employee. John Hurt is marvelous as the gentle father figure who looks over these crazy kids, stepping in when they get a little too wild. Rupert Evans is appropriately fidgety as Hellboy’s rival and it is hysterical to watch Hellboy try to come to terms with this new hotshot member on his team. Then there is Roden’s Rasputin, a typical sunglasses-wearing baddie who is hell-bent on reducing the world to ashes. His evil plot is a bit yawn inducing considering it has been done several times before but his henchmen spice things up. When Hodson’s Ilsa isn’t making your hair stand on end with her glassy-eyed dedication, Beran’s acrobatic assassin Kroenen will. Beran is one of the coolest comic book baddies, sporting one hell of a gas mask and spinning around blades like he came out of the womb doing it.
While the elaborate monsters that del Toro’s FX shop spits out are remarkable works of art, the real draw is the actors who are bound and determined to make Hellboy a keeper. They succeed with flying colors as I preferred the moments where the characters were interacting with one another over the scenes where things are blowing up. Even though they have to ooze sentiment through heaping gobs of spirit gum, Jones and Pearlman manage to pull of the almost impossible and make their character heartwarming. There is plenty of exhilarating action sequences that are a marvel to drink in but Hellboy just misses greatness due to a routine finale that finds Rasputin threatening to unleash giant monsters on New York City. The film also trips over some dated computer effects, which are glaringly out of place when they are piled onto del Toro’s jaw-dropping puppets. The plot of Hellboy is also thinly spread over the course of its two-hour runtime but there is enough adolescent shenanigans and young romance to keep you smiling. Ah, if only fitting in and scoring a date with the girl was as easy as turning a demonic hellhound to ash.
Hellboy is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Diary of the Dead (2008)
by Steve Habrat
In 2005, George Romero finished off his zombie saga with a bit of a whimper with Land of the Dead. It was good to see him back in the genre he created, but it felt like he became a victim to CGI magic tricks. The film was a little too epic for it’s own good and when news came that he was going to restart his Dead franchise with a smaller, independent movie called Diary of the Dead, I was pretty excited to see what he would come up with. It was announced shortly after the news broke, that the film would be shot cinema-vérité style, opting for hand held camera work by one of the films characters over the traditional style of filmmaking. It made sense to this fan because Night of the Living Dead seemed to have traces of cinema-vérité influence within it. It would be small, tight, and focus on a smaller group of people once again facing off against the undead. They were college film students instead of ordinary folk and they would be waiting it out in an RV rather than an isolated farmhouse. Romero furthermore stated that the film would be taking place the same exact time as Night of the Living Dead did. How could you not be intrigued? The master is returning to his roots!
Diary of the Dead concerns itself with our recent discovery of online media and social networking. The characters in the film hover around their glowing computer screens to get the news, much like the desperate survivors did with the television in Night. They are also interested in getting out into the action, filming the carnage for the world to see so everyone knows the truth. Every leader and newscaster seems to be promising that everything is under control while the terrified students discover nothing but unrest and violence stampeding through the countryside. Diary is without question the first Dead film that was truly a disappointment. There are decent moments within the film, but it strayed too much from what made the original series great—the zombies. There are barely any zombies in the film. Romero argued that it was supposed to be more low-key than his hoard heavy Night, Dawn, Day, and Land. No one seems to have told Romero that the smaller scale here was actually ineffective.
Jason Creed (Played by Joshua Close) is making a mummy horror film with fellow students and their brooding professor. When one of the students, Elliot (Played by Joe Dinicol) declares that the news is bring in reports of the recently deceased returning to life, the students pack up into an RV and head back to campus to scoop up Jason’s stone-cold girlfriend Debra (Played by Michelle Morgan), who has barricaded herself into her dorm room. The group sets out to find their families and, well, find a safe place to wait out the situation. As they journey further out, they realize that things may truly be worse than the news is saying. They then decided to fight their way towards the home of their wealthy buddy Ridley (Played by Phillip Riccio) who has been hiding out since the news broke.
The first problem that any seasoned Romero fan will notice while watching Diary of the Dead is the amateurish acting and writing that plagues every scene. The film is loaded with clunky dialogue that is directed at the audience in such a way that it borderlines on lecture. Most of the gabbing comes from Debra, who consistently demands that Jason put down the camera and help out when the few zombies that make their way into the film attack. He keeps whining that they have to record the truth. Romero keeps asking us if letting others suffer all for a good story is worth it. Furthermore, can we live with ourselves for behaving this way? The film doesn’t ask this question subtly and it’s about as obvious as a hoard of zombies trying to pound their way into your home. What happened to the wily director who slipped in satire quietly? The acting is also distracting, clearly coming from a bunch of elementary actors who have not refined their talent. Michelle Morgan is groan worthy and the snappy blonde bombshell Texan Tracy (Played by Amy Lalonde), who always interjects in a cockamamie southern drawl “Don’t mess with Texas!” is downright embarrassing. I honestly couldn’t bring myself to like any of the characters that Romero puts at the center of the action. Jason was an okay character, but he can’t even hold a candle to the relatively unexciting Riley in Land of the Dead. Nerdy Elliot tries his damndest, but he is mostly reduced to hysterics.
Diary of the Dead does offer its fair share of promising set ups. A siege on Ridley’s mansion at the end that is filmed by surveillance cameras set up around the house is efficient. It shows glimmers of Night of the Living Dead and you won’t be able to help yourself to give a geeky fist pump for the nod. It will distract you from asking the question What does Ridley’s father do to earn his money and why do they NEED surveillance? It will also distract you from asking when they found the time to get the footage from the said cameras. There is, after all, a massive wave of zombies lurking outside. I should also mention the humorous run in with a deaf Amish man named Samuel. While holding up with Samuel and contemplating what to do next, the zombies make their move and the students have to make a quick departure. The way the sequence plays out is both disappointingly campy and strangely evocative of Night. The most disgraceful part of the film is the film professor Alexander Maxwell (Played by Scott Wentworth), who prefers a bow and arrow to a firearm. Romero seems to have forgotten what made Night of the Living Dead so unforgettable. Everything seemed real. The characters used what was around them and never pulled out a weapon as ludicrous as a bow and arrow. Could you imagine Ben using a rocket launcher to defend the farmhouse? The fact that this weapon is used in the film is a bit of an outrage.
I find myself troubled about Romero’s restart of his beloved franchise. Diary of the Dead is an interesting commentary of our obsession with social media and the deceiving nature of the news. Yet Romero seems out of his element here and a bit rushed. The Dead series always had long pauses between their releases. It was ten years between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. It would be another six years until Romero would unchain Day of the Dead. Twenty long years filled the gap between Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead. Three years had passed since Land of the Dead played in mainstream theaters. Diary of the Dead did not have this luxury and found a zombified life on DVD and Blu-ray. Perhaps the coolest aspect of Diary is the cameos from Romero’s famous buddies, all who lend their voices to newscasters. Keep an ear out for Quentin Tarantino, Guillermo del Toro, Stephen King, Wes Craven, Tom Savini, and Simon Pegg. Diary is an underwhelming effort from a man who usually leaves us astonished. Diary of the Dead only nips the viewer. It never takes a bloody bite out of us. Grade: C+
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)
by Steve Habrat
While watching Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, the new horror film from writer/producer Guillermo del Toro and director Troy Nixey, one would swear that the film had some creative input from Goth director Tim Burton. The film relies heavily on its gothic atmosphere and gloomy landscapes to carry what is otherwise a painfully dull horror movie with an utterly monotonous storyline. The film, which was the penned by del Toro and Matthew Robbins, is a repetitive bore that keeps the same formula up for an hour and forty minutes. It’s frustrating, really, because del Toro is much better than this and capable of whipping up some truly original material. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, however, just keeps looping jittery attacks on a peculiar little girl by an army of whispering, hunchback critters that resemble a pack of demonic meerkats. If I were the girl’s father in the movie, I would have had enough of her blubbering and called in the exterminator just to get some peace.
Most horror films that are produced by Hollywood these days have stellar build-ups with a crash-and-burn payoff that nearly sends the whole project up in a fireball. Take a look at the excellent haunted house flick Insidious for example. It was a great horror film that was marred by a quivering, out of place ending. Another prime example is 2008’s The Strangers, which was consistently intimidating all to add up to the biggest “What the fuck?!” ending I had seen in quite some time. It copped out and played things safe. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark does the exact opposite. It has one of the most tedious build-ups that ends in a fifteen minute finale that had me sitting on the edge of my seat and yelling “Oh, shit!”
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is totally devoid of any real scares. The film follows a young girl Sally (Played by Bailee Madison), who is sent by her dingbat mother to live with her workaholic father Alex (Played by Guy Pearce, who for the first time in his career is overacting). Alex is an architect, who is attempting to revitalize his career by fixing up the Blackwood Manor. He is staying there with his girlfriend Kim (Played by a surprisingly good Katie Holmes), who is also aiding in the restoration. Shortly after moving in, Sally discovers a hidden basement while exploring the Shining-esque garden in the backyard. Soon, she starts hearing voices from the basement, which beg to be set free and become friends with her. Unknowingly, she unleashes a dormant army of bloodthirsty pint-sized critters who hate light and scamper the house in search of a life to take. Are you quivering in terror yet?
Director Nixey has a gifted cinematic eye. He gives the whole project a gothic gloss that suits the storyline of the film and actually gives it brief hints of life. I’m sure that Tim Burton is currently out there somewhere just gushing over this film. The major problem here is that the creatures that lurk in Blackwood Manor are about as scary as my puppy. They bang around in the air vents and steal screwdrivers, razors, and more. In one brief, uncanny moment, they attack one of the workers at Blackwood Manor and reduce him to a staggering, bloody mess. I should point out that this is only one of two scenes that actually deliver on the R-rating the film posses. The rest of the time, they shred Kim’s clothing and knock over lamps. They bicker with one another in their hissing voices and beg Sally to “come play with us.” It’s absurd and unintentionally funny at some points. Nixey and del Toro are so anxious to show off the little pests and they constantly give us a good look at them rather than keeping them in their preferred dark. This adds to the disappointment because del Toro can dream up some creatures that surpass anything our imagination can conjure up on it’s own.
Another aspect of this disappointment that surprises me is Pearce, who is a truly gifted actor, does such a poor job here. He must have been bored between projects and playing darts with the stack of scripts he received. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark must have been the bull’s eye. This movie made me want to go home and watch The Proposition, Memento, and The King’s Speech all in a row so I could be reminded how incredible his talent is. Holmes gives a sufficient performance, especially in the final moments of the film. I’ve always found her to be a mediocre talent but she actually takes this one seriously. Bailee Madison, the child star, seems robotic and clearly being coached by the muted director. She delivers her lines in a stiff tone and seems to have only gotten the job because she can scream until your eardrums pop.
If you are a fan of del Toro and want to see everything he touches, I’d say see this film. You won’t be left a changed individual and you will probably be left wishing for greatness like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Otherwise, this is a half-baked horror movie that drags on entirely too long. It won’t leave you pulling the covers over your head at night or sleeping with a nightlight on. The film could have benefitted from a scarier monster at the heart of it and maybe some more emotional depth. It’s a missed opportunity that left me wishing I had stayed at home and watched Insidious again. Is it too much to ask for more than one good horror movie a year? Grade: C-