He Said/She Said Review: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
dir: Troy Nixey (USA, 2011)
MGS rating: 5.5
JM rating: 5.8

This “dialogue review” of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a joint-venture of Exploring Feminisms and my spouse Michael’s film studies blog White City CinemaHe Said/She Said will be a semi-regular feature on both our sites.

MGS: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was written and produced by our old buddy Guillermo del Toro but was directed by comic artist Troy Nixey. My first question to you is to what extent do you think it can be classified as a “Guillermo del Toro film”? In other words, where do you see GDT’s fingerprints on it and what do you think Nixey brings to the table? Also, how do you think the film might have been different had GDT actually directed it?

JM: Great question, and yes, I definitely do see GDT’s influence in this film, and that’s probably why I stuck it out for the while hour and a half. The first GDT calling card that stood out was featuring a child as the main character (Pan’s LabyrinthThe Devil’s Backbone and even possibly Geometria) and, further, telling the story through a child’s eyes. The difference between this film and his others is that with this film one of the adults begins to buy into the child’s fantastical story whereas in GDT’s own films the fantastical elements are usually exclusive to the child characters. A second aspect where I noticed GDT’s trademark – the creatures. The creature being a tooth fairy in Don’t be Afraid… is a direct throwback to the tooth fairies in Hellboy II. I know that we’ve talked about this many times, Mike, but to reiterate, GDT is in love with his monsters and makes them sympathetic (at least I know that we find them to be so), and in this film I don’t side with his monsters at all. One last GDT influence that I noticed was the blending of the child’s world (whether made up in his/her own mind or not) and the natural world. In this film, there’s a scene where Sally walks into a garden full of falling snow, but the snow almost seems to be floating around her. This is very reminiscent of the scene in Pan’s Labyrinth where Ofelia explores the labyrinth.

As for what Nixey brings, I think that answer can be summed up in one word: Hollywood. GDT brings in actors who are good for the part, not for their name (besides Ron Perlman). I am a fan of Guy Pearce but the film seemed beefed up with him and Holmes to make up for a bland and formulaic storyline, though I will say that the little girl who played Sally was great and I appreciated that she didn’t look like the typical American female child star. What kept me interested throughout the film was to seek out and identify those glimpses of GDT but having seen all of his movies, including Blade II, I feel that the overall direction of this film lacks the heart of a GDT project.

To answer your last question, I think that I’ve pretty much described what this film would be had he directed it but again there would have been more care paid to his creature-characters and more of a focus on quality as opposed to quantity – that is, the quantity of big name actors.

MGS: I agree that Guy Pearce was wasted. He should be getting the kind of roles that Brad Pitt, Viggo Mortenson and, now, Michael Fassbender are playing. He is just too good for this kind of thankless, one-note role. The Katie Holmes part had more substance but I couldn’t see past the “Katie Holmes-ness” of her performance, if you know what I mean.

You raise an excellent point about the creatures being more sympathetic in GDT’s own films. I suspect the fact that they aren’t depicted that way in this movie is one of the reasons he decided not to direct it himself and farmed it out to someone else instead. I don’t think he is capable of making a monster movie that doesn’t express a love of monsters! Also, it seems like GDT isn’t really interested in making “pure” horror films. The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth mix horror with the melodrama and war film genres and also have a lot of interesting things to say about history, politics, fascism and moral choices. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark on the other hand is just a simple ghost story – a kind of Pan’s Labyritnth-lite.

Speaking of the differences between del Toro and Nixey, something that bothered me about the visual style of this movie was the extensive use of moving camera. GDT loves to have frequent but subtle camera movements in his own movies; I think this lends them a sense of creeping dread and the feeling that he’s depicting a world off-balance. But Nixey’s use of elaborate crane shots was overkill. The camera was constantly swooping around the rooms of that mansion in such dramatic fashion that the movement ended up quickly losing its effectiveness.

But I would also like to say a few words in favor of the movie (I do after all think it’s slightly above average for a contemporary Hollywood horror film.) As you mentioned, Bailee Madison gives an exceptionally good performance as Sally. She conjures up and sustains extreme emotional states, such as terror and depression (as opposed to merely looking sad or scared), which child actors aren’t often asked to do, and she’s always believable. I also found the set design of the house impressively spooky. Finally, I would argue the best way to measure the success of any horror movie is in the effectiveness of its scares. I counted two good ones here: the opening scene where Mr. Blackwell obtains the teeth and the scene where Sally finds the monster under the covers of her bed.

Anything else you’d like to add?

JM: If I were to say anything in this film’s favor, it would be that GDT worked on it. Haha, only semi-kidding. But seriously, I did like Guy Pearce, though he wasn’t as sexy as he was in Ravenous.

MGS: Since you write a feminist blog I would like to know if you think Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which centers on the relationship between two female characters, lends itself in any way to a feminist reading.

JM: Well let me just remind you that there are many feminisms, and I don’t claim to have the definitive answer. I just have my answer. That being said, I do find it to be a little tiresome that the female adult character (played by Katie Holmes) is the one who begins to believe Sally and her character is emotional and nurturing, even though she doesn’t have a child of her own. The male adult character (Guy Pearce) is pragmatic and reasonable, and even though he is Sally’s father, he doesn’t believe her that there are little killer monsters in the basement. Though I hesitate to discuss too much about what this film isn’t, I will say that it would be refreshing to see the male character/father sensitive to his child’s needs. I think it plays too much off of the stereotype that the female characters are inherently mother-like and are more susceptible to accepting the world of the fantastic. In Devil’s Backbone, for example, GDT subverts this normative gender assumption by making Dr. Casares, the elderly male teacher, emotionally available to his students and he himself buys into magical theories.

MGS: Good point. You also just reminded me of the refreshingly original and touching relationship in Cronos between the little girl and her vampire grandfather. Del Toro’s own movies always have those unique touches that make them so endearing and put them in a league of their own.

I had a lot of fun doing this. We should do it again sometime with a movie we totally disagree on!

JM: Like the sex/rape scene in A History of Violence? We’ll keep those worms canned up for now.

Me, Guillermo del Toro and my spouse Mike at the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival

Cat People

Sometimes described as a “B-Movie” because of its low budget, I would argue that Jacques Tourner’s Cat People (1942) transcends the genre of the low quality, often ridiculous and hokey films that most times are associated with those on a budget.

Basically, the story is one of a young Serbian woman named Irena who fears that when she becomes immensely jealous, angry, or kisses a man, she becomes a black cat and attacks the offending party, whether male or female.  Any day of the week she can be found at the local zoo’s panther cage, sketching the cats with large swords being stabbed through them.  Irena, hating and rejecting her ability to transform draws the sword in a literal hope that the cat part of her will be slain (why she wouldn’t want to embrace this awesome power is beyond me).  During one her daily sketch sessions, local mapmaker Oliver is intrigued by her beauty and pursues her, later stating that though he did not love her, he was drawn and intrigued by her.

The two quickly get hitched and are married for several months without even the hint of physical activity, including kissing on down.  Irena fears the transformation into her powerful cat self and I’d venture to bet that this is a metaphor for the fear of female sexuality, both from a male’s point of view and also the taboo of women having and recognizing their own sexual urges.

As time rolls on, Oliver becomes increasingly frustrated by Irena’s lack of physical affection–although Irena is upfront with him from the beginning that she needs time and he assures her that she can have all the time in the world.  Unfortunately for Irena, to Oliver “all the time in the world” translates to a few mere months before he finds himself in the embrace of a female co-worker, with whom he quickly leaves Irena for.

But let’s not argue that little Ollie didn’t try to salvage the marriage, he did after all send her to a male shrink to “cure” her irrational fantasies.  Her therapist, Dr. Judd believes that Irena can be cured by kissing her against her will and as a result she becomes a cat, and in this case I’d wager more of a defense mechanism and kills him.  And why shouldn’t she defend herself when forced upon by her doctor?  Though this film was written, directed and produced by men who probably weren’t attending any feminist rallies, this revenge fantasy does resonate with my blood lust for attackers and rapists, which is essentially what this doctor was.

While watching the somewhat incestuous relationship between Irena, Doc Judd and her husband Oliver, I kept thinking that I had seen this scenario before.  And then it hit me–The Yellow Wallpaper, the short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman!  It almost seems verbatim–a woman who is deemed by her husband too high strung and emotional and is physically and/or emotionally locked up from society (in the short story’s version in a child’s room).  In both stories, the female lead is patronized by her husband and doctor, who discuss “the patient” amongst each other while skipping over the middleperson–the patient herself.  Both women’s cures are discussed and prescribed, and the medicine is the inhibition of personal expression and/or creativity.  Again, I think it is safe to call both of these scenarios fairly textbook–that women’s bodies and minds need to be analyzed, explored, controlled and cured.

Another point of note that struck me while watching is the idea of the “other,” which Irena inherently is as she is not only a woman, but foreign to New York.  And why wouldn’t a foreigner have a family history of crazed, emotional women who turn into killer cats because of some sort of Turkish curse or something of the like?  Because Irena is “other” to the main characters, she is mysterious, deadly and comes from uncivilized and archaic roots.  Even the American female lead, when juxtaposed to Irena’s outlandish story is portrayed as rational and believable, even when she indulges in fanciful, irrational stories.

Though I probably wouldn’t describe Cat People as a feminist film per se, I would say it can be analyzed with a feminist lens, especially as a cultural artifact of the 1940s.  Through it all though, and even though she was the villain, I sided with Irena and for the first time ever, I sided with the bad guy, or in this case, bad gal.  What can I say?  She’s one tough pussy.