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In Search of Scary:

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Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
Red State
Apollo 19

The horror genre is taking a shellacking this year. It’s the genre that I am the most forgiving of, mainly because of how inspired I was by scary movies in my youth. As I keep watching these poorly conceived, awfully staged attempts at frightening audiences, I find myself wondering if there’s any life left to the horror film. I went back to the well this week and watched three very different flicks; I came up empty. Horror film might not be dead, but Hollywood is sure doing a good job of trying to murder it.


MEDIOCRE ON THE SCARE SCALE: Katie Holmes stars in the (hardly a thriller) “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” by Guillermo del Toro. Courtesy photo.

First, there’s “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” produced by Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”). Del Toro has sold himself as a brand to Hollywood, and he seems to have an annual producer’s credit on a mediocre scary movie. “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is easily the worst thing with which his name has ever been associated. It’s one of those movies that is so flawed in concept and execution, you find yourself embarrassed for everyone involved. Uncomfortable and awkward, giggles eventually turn to full-out guffaws, as the movie goes from “flawed and well-intentioned” to “ludicrously incoherent.”

The plot involves a little girl named Sally (Bailee Madison), who is shipped off to live with her estranged father (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes). Currently, they reside in the world’s scariest renovation project, an old mansion with a sinister past. Sally not only has to contend with the evil creatures that reside in the basement but the most half-assed parenting ever committed to film. Horror movies sometimes rely on a principle of the main characters being “too stupid to live,” but Sally’s father and Kim may be the most patently idiotic parental figures ever.

Sally’s first encounters with the creepy monsters that reside in her house are passed off as psychological episodes of a little girl acting out. As the evidence mounts, there is something supernatural happening and Sally is in real danger; yet, her parents somehow get even dumber.

There’s a moment toward the end of the movie so idiotic, it is almost worth the price of admission. The father is staring at a mural painted by the previous tenant, which shows a child being lowered into a pit of monsters. Alex exclaims, “I just don’t know what to do!”

Try leaving the house, asshole.

“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is a scary movie without scares. It’s unintentionally funny—and stupid to the point of straining credibility.

“Red State” is equally disappointing. I was once a fan of writer/director Kevin Smith. Notice the past tense. After making awesome indie films like “Clerks” and “Chasing Amy,” he kind of lost his way and has spent the last five years in a desperate attempt to find validation in Hollywood. His most recent foray is directing the truly heinous “Cop Out.” Though he returns to his independent roots, instead of the R-rated comedies he was known for, he has turned to horror, cranking out a low-budget morality play,
“Red State.”

CULT CLASSIC: Kerry Bishé stars as ‘The Virgin’ in Kevin Smith’s latest attempt at horror, “Red State.” Courtesy photo.

The movie centers around a Fred Phelps-inspired preacher, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks). In real life, Fred Phelps is known for being looney, and his church is built around a core of anti-homosexual theology. Smith takes the concept of a fundamentalist cult-leading Bible-thumper one step further and turns him into a genocidal maniac. Abin Cooper not only hates the gay community, he murders them inside his church compound.

I assume the goal was to make Abin Cooper and his fundamentalist followers scary, but the movie is a giant, poorly executed cartoon. It all plays like a first-time film from someone who has never directed—something a writer, director and producer of a dozen films doesn’t want to hear. What’s worse, it feels like a filmmaker working way outside his wheelhouse, trying to make a torture-porn film like “Hostel.” The movie is a labor to sit through. John Goodman shows up halfway into the movie, tries to save the film single-handedly as an ATF agent sent to take down Abin Cooper’s church. He looks tired and disinterested. With the material he has been saddled with, it’s easy to see why.

Kevin Smith announced he will be retiring from directing after one final film. “Red State” is a good example of why he probably should. It’s been almost 20 years since “Clerks,” a film that influenced a lot of young filmmakers. Smith has never grown or evolved, though. Everybody thinks they can do a horror film, as if the genre is easy to master, but “Red State” is two hours of conclusive proof that it takes more than blood and violence to make a good scary movie.

“Apollo 18” is another difficult movie, mainly because of the sub-genre from which it tries to tell a story. This sub-genre is called “found footage”—i.e. the movie is based on concept that the footage we see onscreen is “real” and shot from the perspective of those experiencing the terror. The most famous example of this comes from “The Blair Witch Project.” For the record, I hated “The Blair Witch Project.” The last five minutes were fun, but the entire affair was a boring, motion-sick-inducing mess. We’ve seen more examples over the past decade—truly wretched little movies like “Cloverfield” and “Paranormal Activity.”

“Apollo 18” has an interesting enough concept. Astronauts go to the moon and find out that there may be something quite terrifying outside. The movie has a nice, old-school look. A lot of effort has been made to make it feel realistic. Personally, I think the whole idea of “found footage” is lazy. The concept is supposed to make scenarios seem astute, but all it does is make me scrutinize its generality that much more. I wouldn’t mind seeing a movie about some of the first astronauts dealing with something sinister, stalking them as they struggle to survive. I’d just prefer if they did a proper movie with a traditional structure and didn’t saddle themselves with the limitations of a sub-genre designed for effective low-budget filmmaking. Congratulations for doing a large concept on a very small budget! In doing so, though, it cut the cost creatively—I was bored for most of the movie. Plus, there’s this moment in all these found-footage films where I find myself screaming “Why are you still filming this?”—as if survival takes the back burner to chronicling the moment.

We’re at a point now where horror films have been drowning in lackluster product and high-gloss remakes. Each terrible effort further fractures the foundation. I’m hoping we’re at the end of a cycle and that a truly great horror film is just around the corner. Even though all evidence seems to point to the contrary.

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