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The haunted house movie is a staple in cinema. I would say modern cinema, as the genre has truly come into its own over the last twenty years or so, but that would discount far too many films from the early heyday. And as a film enthusiast of the highest order, I can't, in good conscience, do that. I've always held the beauty of a truly good haunted house film about all others. They have a way, when done correctly, of tapping into the true nature of the viewer, and raising many of the important emotional journeys a film should take you through into the forefront. Childhood fears, loss, love, abandonment, etc. A good haunted house film, and by that I point out The Others, El Orfanato, The House on Haunted Hill ('53), even Monster House to some extent, make us fearful of things that aren't there. Whatever it is that goes bump in the night, whatever it may be that causes our lights to turn off at the perfect(ly wrong) moment, whatever it is that moves something from one end of the room to another when we aren't looking. But, mostly, it's what goes bump in the night.
They aren't pleasant films, usually. Especially in the case of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. This film employs creepy gnome-like creatures that feed off children's teeth and collect the living to join their periodontal party. They are afraid of light, they hunt like vikings, and are small enough that they can't easily be seen. So, how do you fight them? Well, you can't, really. You can scare them away, but lights will always go out, and kids will always have teeth. In theory, it's the perfect set up. But, again, not exactly pleasant.
Guillermo Del Toro has a beautifully twisted mind. He's able to take the most "Tim Burton"-esque sensibilities and carve them into something not alienating and "Tim Burton"-esque. And, interestingly enough, is able to do so without losing his vision as an artist, nor his culture. But that's a topic for a different article. Del Toro prodouces this film, which is a remake of the 1973 TV film of the same name.
Our story follows young Sally (Bailee Madison) as she's shipped - for lack of a more appropriate word - to her father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes). Alex and Kim have sunk their fortune into the creepy Blackwood Manor in hopes of remodeling and selling it for a high profit, also in hopes to kick start Alex's new business. He, as a father, is remote and distant. Calculated, almost, in the way he loves both Kim and his daughter. (notice that Kim comes first). He is self-centered in a way that no one seems to notice until his daughter starts having "episodes" and seeing things that can't possibly be real. Kim wants to be Sally's friend, first, and hopefully grow to love her as a mother might her own child. Sally wants nothing to do with either of them. It isn't until Sally stumbles across a mysterious basement filled with scary drawings and hints of things gone very wrong in the past that anyone seems to notice her as she really is.
It's easy to dismiss a child as wondrous or sympathetic, but it's hard to take note of something that might be beyond your own adult reasoning. Such is the struggle presented in the film. If a child came to you and said "there's a man in my closet", you'll freak out, grab an ax, and go in swinging, clothes and toys be damned if they get in your way. But, if a child came to you and said "there's a swarm of tooth fairies in my closet trying to eat me", you'll medicate the kid and send them to counseling for the rest of the next twelve years. Such is another struggle of the film. Alex and Kim, mostly Alex, can't see past his own dinner party and dismisses these visions and acts of violence as a way for Sally to lash out and seek attention.
The most distressing thing about this film, though, has nothing to do with the story. But, more so, on the technical side of things - remember back in the day when we didn't have CGI to rely on? When puppets had to be made and things had to be controlled by hand rather than BIOS? I officially miss those days. Think back to the wolf in The Never Ending Story. How half of it appeared on camera, and it was hand operated, rather than drawn in through numbers. That creature terrified me as a kid, and still makes my stomach turn even today. Watching it be killed and bleeding, knowing that in theory it wasn't just the puppet being killed, nor the character, but the man operating it. There's a strange sense of well-roundedness that comes from puppetry in movies. There's a man and his hands controlling everything you see. That's terror. Here, though the creatures are frightening, if not a little over-personified, it's CG imagery. And it takes longer than it should to get past it.
The film is effective, though, which is all we should hope for from a horror movie. It delivers upon its promise to scare but do so in a creative way. Not too many "jump scenes", not too many brandished violins telling us when to be scared. But, it's left up to our imaginations, and the man behind the camera designing it for us. A good horror movie relies on atmosphere. And Troy Nixey has a handle on that, almost as solid as Del Toro (who co-wrote the screenplay). And when a director can control the atmosphere, he can control the audience. Much like, dare I say it, old school puppetry.