Dear Horror Movie Parents--
Why must you insist on buying your children creepy-as-hell rotating night lights when moving into spooky mansions with inevitably dark and murderous (most foul!) histories?
Sincerely yours, High-Def Digest.
Talk about a passion project. Writer-Director-Producer Guillermo de Toro attempted to get this movie made since 1993, having been a lifelong fan of the original 1973 ABC television movie. Production finally began in 2009, but thanks to Disney selling off the Miramax label to private investors, the film sat until the middle of 2011 where it took in only $6 million dollars more than its $25 million dollar budget. A shame, really. Not because it's extraordinary (we'll get to my personal feelings on that in a moment), but because Hollywood doesn't make enough big, gothic, creative, horror films with booming Bernard Herrmann film scores akin to 'The Others' and 'Psycho' and 'The Haunting' (1963).
'Don't be Afraid of the Dark' opens with an effective and cringe-inducing teaser set in the basement of Blackwood manor near Providence Rhode Island. I'll spare you the details, but something lives deep under Mr. Blackwood's home and has taken his son. Fast forward a hundred or so years to today. Architect Alex Hurst (Guy Pearce) has purchased the home and is restoring it to its period glory with the help of his girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes). Think of this like a high end house flip. Every dime Alex has is tied up in this house.
Complicating matters, Alex's ex-wife ships their young, depression-prone daughter, Sally, to live with Alex and Kim in the creepy old mansion as they complete the restoration. Bored, Sally explores the house and gardens and discovers a hidden basement where tiny voices call out to her in hopes she will remove a metal grate that has become their prison doors.
The audience knows how dangerous these little demon faerie creatures truly are, thanks to the teaser and their habit of whispering exposition. They want Sally, and as soon as she manages to free them, they set out to trap her. By the time Sally realizes she's in danger, Alex and Kim don't believe her stories about creatures who live under the house. Instead, they think she's delusional.
As the threat level rises, Alex remains too focused on the house, but after the creatures maim a groundskeeper, Kim suspects Sally may be telling the truth. Kim's investigation confirms a terrifying history behind the ancient things that live below, but will she be able to get Sally out of the house in time? Watch on, dear readers, to find out.
I have to say, there is a fantastic amount of creativity on display here. The mythology and the creatures themselves are scary and look terrifyingly real. Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders' music is powerful and evocative. The set and production design are stunning. And the cinematography and direction are atmospheric and unsettling. Like I said, so much of this works well, and is a cut above most horror movies.
However, I personally failed to connect with the story's emotional elements and logic. The film seems, at first, burdened by a lack of chemistry between the two adults -- I never believed Alex and Kim were in love, and because a majority of the film is seen from Sally's POV, I never really get to know them. Also, while telling the story from the perspective of a young girl may be a great idea because of how adults rarely believe kids when they're afraid of magical beings, ultimately this undercuts the monsters' threat.
The creatures demonstrate the tactical ability to choreograph brutal, coordinated, multi-pronged attacks on one or more adults (some who already know the creatures exist and are dangerous), yet fail numerous times capturing a little girl who is left alone for copious amounts of time locked in confined spaces. While this made the creatures seem less dangerous, I never really believed Sally could protect herself. Each moment of terror for Sally peters out thanks to a happy accident (she scares the creatures away, or an adult takes Sally away).
Next, let's talk about exposition. A necessary evil, given the short running time of feature films, but it feels like every time a character speaks, they say exactly what's on his or her mind and/or how he or she feels. There is very little subtext. Further, the creatures themselves are equally expository, going so far as to talk about what things hurt them. I kid you not, Sally scares them away with a flashlight beam. The creatures squeal and scatter, so I make a mental note, "got it, those things are afraid of light."
Much to my surprise, the creatures then whisper repeatedly, "Light, that hurts us." Sigh.
Ultimately, I suppose, my big issues with the film boil down to emotion, internal logic, and subtlety. Because I felt bashed over the head in some areas, and confused by what seemed like changing rules, I was never able to fully suspend my disbelief. And without suspended disbelief, no matter how great all the individual pieces of a film may be in terms of production and visual effects, there's no way for me to enjoy the film's universe. Another shame, really. I was hoping to like this one much more than I did.
Perhaps others won't react the same way, and if so, you're in for a treat. As I said, the back story is interesting, the creatures are well designed, and there's more than a few effective scares of the jump variety as well as moments of escalating tension. Let's call this one "very well made, but could have been more effective."
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark' arrives on video courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The standard, single disc case houses the lone, Region A locked BD50. Forced trailers include 'In the Land of Blood & Honey', 'The Rum Diary', 'Drive', 'Hostel Part III', 'London Boulevard', and 'The Woman in Black'
'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark' creeps onto Blu-ray with an excellent AVC MPEG-4 encode (aspect ratio 1.85:1).
Seriously, I never knew this many shades of black and gray were possible. Dark films are a real test for any display, straining black levels, dynamic range, and contrast abilities. I attest many a cheap set will fall when asked to recreate this level of detail in the shadows thanks to a majority of the film shot at night or indoors. And yet, even in its inkiest moments, the film sparkles with clarity and dimension. The creatures themselves are wonderfully rendered and realistic. Skin tones remain natural, and pop against the muted color palette.
Despite what is an overall successful transfer from blemish-free source material, there are a couple minor issues. Black crush appears from time to time, but most of this seems intentional rather than a Blu-ray issue. The one encode flaw I detected is the faintest hint of banding in one or two light beams. Blink and you miss them problems.
As highlighted in the making-of documentary, tons of work went into creating the sets and world of the film, and thanks to a marvelous transfer, fans will see it all.
'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark' screams and whispers its way onto Blu-ray with a 5.1 English DTS-HD MA surround sound track. It's generally very good, highlighting the gothic score, LFE accentuated sound effects, and chanting whispers. However, despite all these strengths, there are two things that bothered me about this mix. The first is arguably more objective. Like the film, I felt it lacked subtlety when compared to similar films like 'The Others'. There is never a question of if the creatures voices were real or some other noise. Ambient noises are either full throttle or off. I suppose the way to characterize this is that it feels like the soundscape was created with broad strokes rather than fine, intricate details. This is a very slight criticism, which might not bother anyone.
Second, there appears to be a mistake around the 54 minute mark shortly after Sally screams upon seeing a creature. It's a nice loud moment populated by creatures' shrieking and scattering. We then hear the Sally's heavy breathing before she calls for help and resumes screaming. But, her second bout of screams drop off in volume as do the adult voices when they arrive. Meaning, her screams and the other voices become more quiet than the breathing (which doesn't appear to one of those super subjective POV moments akin to hearing a character's heart beat). It's rare to see flat out mistakes in a modern movie, but it only happened once and I listened to the sequence about four times to make sure I was hearing what I was hearing.
Overall, despite a few flaws,'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark' sounds very good on Blu-ray.
A Three-Part Making-of Documentary is one of two special features found on this Blu-ray. Available in HD, with a collective running time just shy of 21 minutes, the doc covers The Story, Blackwood's Mansion, and The Creatures. My favorite of the three was The Creatures, and despite its length, this documentary is surprisingly in depth. Those interested in production design or creature / visual effects should give this a gander. Hundreds of talented craftsman banded together to create a terrific set and scary, original creatures. I may not have loved the movie, but there's still a lot to admire and respect here.
'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark' doesn't quite succeed on all levels (for me), but there are a number of clever scares, the cinematography is slick, the score is gothic and ominous, and the production and creature design are memorable. As a Blu-ray, it succeeds with a crystal clear picture despite all the darkness, and a decent surround sound track -- in comparing it to a similarly style 'The Others', this Blu-ray has a better picture, but not quite as good a soundtrack as that disc. Though there's not much in terms of special features, what's included should make fans happy. If you haven't seen the film yet, I would personally test it out with a rental first.