Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, produced and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, comes out today, promising tiny, Gremlins-style creature terror. As a look at a family trying to find common ground during a stressful time, it's okay. But as a monster movie, it fails in the most frustrating way possible.
It's hard to fault ten-year-old Sally when she follows creepy voices down into a deserted room, or even when she uses stolen tools to open an ominous locked grating. Her mom has just pushed her off on her dad, Alex, and his new girlfriend Kim. Both are involved in an elaborate restoration of the house of a nineteenth century artist. It's taken all their money and a good part of their time. Sally is miserable enough that anything that makes her feel special can manipulate her. Once she opens the grate and lets loose a mob of malicious goblins, she tries to go to the adults for help but can't make them believe her.
Which isn't to say the adults are monsters. Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes have the thankless roles of the busy parents, who see that something is wrong but are reasonably sure it's not goblins. Bailee Madison, the young actress who plays Sally, does a great job of making her character slightly too precocious for her own good. She arrives at the house pre-loaded with vague new-age neuroses, picked up from her mother, that serve to sabotage her credibility later. She's also angry at being dumped, and not afraid to show it. (During one epic sulk she delivers, completely deadpan, the funniest line in the movie.) Any tricks the goblins play can be explained by her 'acting out'.
The movie is smart about the ways that adults condescend to kids in well-meaning but destructive ways. Kim, the new 'stepmother', pushes Sally for the kind of friendship that she would never assume could happen so soon with an adult. Alex tries to cheer Sally up by refusing to acknowledge that anything's wrong, which alienates her. Soon Sally breaks down and tells the adults about the goblins, at which point they call in a shrink. When the psychiatrist asks her what the creatures say to her and she replies, "They tell me that my parents don't love me," every adult in the theater groans in sympathy. Sally doesn't know it, but all the adults watching understand that that's the line that will convince the shrink that the goblins are in her mind and not the result of any kind of external threat. She's doomed herself.
And so, when it comes to family dynamics, the film gets it right. The problem is, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, isn't a film about a new family trying to find a common ground. It's a monster movie. And it absolutely wrecks itself on the monsters. The 'rules' for the goblins are explained, either through words or through actions, three different times. All of those explanations contradict each other. The monsters themselves do things which don't fit into any of the explanations. The monsters repeatedly do things that sabotage their own goals. They also suffer from Villainous Commercial Break syndrome. There are moments when they move like the wind and effectively carry out their goals. But once the film cuts away, no matter how much time passes, they never get any closer to accomplishing what they wanted to do. When the movie comes back to them, they're just where they were before.
The light scares them away, and this plays into everyone's childhood fear of darkness, but darkness becomes relative. In some sequences they're chased away by a thin beam of light in utter blackness while in others they hop around a well-lit home, hiding in meager shadows. The audience gets good, long looks at them, too. Although the CGI is fine, tiny shadows and hands clawing out from behind heating vents are scary. Gray, smallish howler monkeys are not.
Add that to the fact that the parents make increasingly foolish decisions towards the end of the film, and the film collapses on itself. As a result, tense scenes are no longer about whether the child, or her parents, can get away from the goblins. They will, somehow, because there are twenty minutes left and there has to be a big final dramatic conflict. Another scene is not about whether a character will leave. They won't, for whatever reason, because they have to be there for the final conflict. And when that final conflict is over, we know it not because anything was resolved, but because something monumental enough has happened for the movie to end. It's not a story anymore. It's a waiting game. Atmosphere and gimmick aren't enough. For the movie to work, it has to tell a story. This movie doesn't.