"What is perhaps more strange is that the creatures are never pleasant, entrancing, or inviting. Their maniacally hushed, whispery voices seeping from a dusty ash pit undoubtedly resemble a children’s nightmares, not their unique opportunity for fantastical escape. Why a young, scared girl follows creepy voices into a basement and down an ash pit where she finds a pile of teeth is a mysterious concept, even taking account of Sally’s family circumstances."
by James Hansen
Produced and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, Troy Nixey’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a near carbon copy of del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. A young girl, Sally (Bailee Madison), is pushed into unfortunate circumstances – a cross-country move in with her architect father, Alex (Guy Pearce) and Kim his interior designer girlfriend (Katie Holmes). Putting the finishing touches on an important redesign, the house’s strange history is buried literally beneath its surface. Among the remnants of the creepy, yet refurbished house, Sally finds the possibility of escape within a fantasy world of creatures who, unlike her parents, want her and need her.
Unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, Sally’s escape appears as misplaced. Kim shows Sally the real imaginative wonders of the house (and the film’s expectedly solid production design) – lush gardens, expanding mazes, and a small pool filled with fish from Japan. However, Sally, still drawn towards the calls of the creatures, falls deeper into trouble as her curiosity soon leads to violent acts around the house. What is perhaps more strange is that the creatures are never pleasant, entrancing, or inviting. Their maniacally hushed, whispery voices seeping from a dusty ash pit undoubtedly resemble a children’s nightmares, not their unique opportunity for fantastical escape. Why a young, scared girl follows creepy voices into a basement and down an ash pit where she finds a pile of teeth is a mysterious concept, even taking account of Sally’s family circumstances.
Nonetheless, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’s first half successfully establishes a moody, destructive atmosphere. As light wind blows through the shafts of the basement, Nixey allows the film to linger among the chilled, strange spaces. The black hole of the open ash pit signals the incoming, unexpected horror. These brief moments are among the film’s most successful. As Sally, Bailee Madison performs with a distanced, quizzical gaze as her ambivalent pouts turn into genuine terror. Madison embodies the film’s dark, dreary tone. Perhaps entranced by her own fear, Sally’s fragile psyche begins to wear down as the creatures’ presence becomes more prominent.
And, as is becoming more typical, the reveal of the creatures derails the film. The story’s most basic logic – the weakness of the creatures is light – is bent, abused, and reveals itself as a worthless plank. In what seems to be a critical set piece – pulled from the Silence of the Lambs playbook – Sally attempts to create visual evidence of the creatures. Yet, this extended sequence amount to only mild annoyance for the hostile creatures and the seemingly important, late-addition subplot is dropped. What is more, the creature’s capabilities multiply as they slowly shift from strange voices to knife-wielding bastards who can turn off lights and bound people with ropes. This creates an unnecessary imbalance between the opposing forces and ultimately flatlines the film’s final act. Even in the standard expository visit to the library amount to a recognition of truth, but no new knowledge to bring forward. Without a weakness and a mechanism for escape, the story and the film drag to an inevitable, uninspired conclusion. Once again, mystery and dread are abandoned in favor of nonsensical screeches, cheap reveals, and swelling music. Obsessed with their creatures, Nixey and del Toro merely organize scenes rather than letting the film naturally develop. This leaves the wonders of the film’s first half buried under the surface of a surprisingly standard movie in desperate need of redesign.
Friday, August 26, 2011
Monday, August 22, 2011
"DA Pennebaker said of his 1993 documentary The War Room that if Bill Clinton hadn’t won the election, they wouldn’t have really had a movie. Tabloid certainly fits the bill as entertainment, but it is unclear whether it is much of an Errol Morris documentary without Kirk."
by James Hansen
Although it has been around since the 1820s, Mormonism seems to be having a cultural moment in 2011. There has been The Book of Mormon, which uses a Mormon mission to brilliantly situate musical theater as one of the world’s great religions, as well as Mitt Romney’s second-run for the presidency, again undercutting political debate with effervescent theology. Added to the list is Errol Morris’s new film Tabloid.
Tabloid documents the strange life story of Joyce McKinney. In the 1970s, the beauty queen McKinney moved to Los Angeles and fell in love with Kirk Anderson, a young Mormon. After Kirk leaves the country for his Mormon mission – a brainwashing disappearance according to McKinney – she flies to England in order to save him from the Mormon cult. McKinney finds Kirk at which point they either have a lovely, sex-crazed honeymoon or McKinney kidnapped Kirk, chained him to a bed, and forced sex on his pure Mormon soul for three days. His planet doomed, word of the story got to the press. Shortly after, the story became a tabloid sensation.
Like much of Morris’s acclaimed work, Tabloid cycles around the key players in McKinney’s strange story. As different versions of facts appear from McKinney, her accomplices, and tabloid writers, it becomes clear that the sensational nature of the story is also what fascinates Morris. The whole situation is pitched as rather silly and perhaps rightfully so: the virginal beauty queen chasing down the crazy Mormon and ruining his mission to become a god. Morris’s film represents its own version of the tabloid: whizzing by with more and more details that get stranger and stranger as McKinney expounds on her love affair with Kirk. She, of course, never has a chance against Morris, as his film exposé turns into something of an entertaining hit piece, albeit one with a subject that is so consumed by her untruths that recovery of a sense of sanity appears long gone.
Yet, also like a tabloid, Morris’s film becomes increasingly entertaining just as it reveals itself as strangely shabby and devoid of serious consideration for its subject matter. Morris’s editing establishes an ironic banter with both Mormonism – an ex-missionary unrelated to the story details notorious aspects of the Mormon religion with an unkempt tie and frazzled hair – and Christianity via McKinney’s claims of chastity with God channelled through her star-crossed, brainwashed Mormon. But where is Kirk in all of this? An end credit states that Kirk refused to be interviewed. In the film’s latter stages, Tabloid strains through this non-presence. Rather than adding to some sort of mystery, Kirk is a distracting elephant in the room, a crucial element missing in action. DA Pennebaker said of his 1993 documentary The War Room that if Bill Clinton hadn’t won the election, they wouldn’t have really had a movie. Tabloid certainly fits the bill as entertainment, but it is unclear whether it is much of an Errol Morris documentary without Kirk.
All the same, this may explain why Morris gives so much time not just to the Kirk story and its fallout, but also the rest of McKinney’s tabloid-filled life. For an invested audience, this is certainly fun and games. Nonetheless, the final third illustrates its fatuousness with an overwhelmingly tangential aside regarding McKinney’s extreme love for her dog, Booger. This makes it clear that Tabloid isn’t really a religious intervention, nor an encounter with versions of the truth. It is a Looney Tunes documentary of the living tabloid Joyce McKinney.