September 14, 2011 -- Word is that producer Guillermo del Toro (“Pan's Labyrinth”) saw this same story as a made for TV movie when he was a kid and it scared the hell out of him. I can see why. It is exactly the kind of story that preys on the primal fears of children, if not adults. In his first career remake, he is trying to haunt us with the story that has haunted him for years, using his considerable skills as writer and producer of this relentless, bloody, creepy, unforgiving movie.
I have to say up front this is not my cup of tea, but del Toro is a major talent and I had to check this out. It is a dark, grim, grisly shocker, but unlike most horror films, this is a real first-rate production backed by solid writing, directing and acting talent. Most of the action takes place in a big, dark, old creepy mansion being renovated by an upscale couple of house-flippers, Alex (played by Guy Pearce of “The King's Speech” and Kim (Katie Holmes of “Thank You for Smoking”). Everything seems to be going O.K. until Alex's young daughter, Sally (Bailee Madison of “Just Go With It”) is sent to live with them by Alex's ex-wife. An ancient evil is awakened by Sally's presence. The deadly nature of this evil is shown in the film's opening flashback to a time long ago when the house's original owner, a famed artist, is shown in the basement of the house murdering a young woman and mutilating her in a desperate attempt to save his missing son.
Alex and Kim are somehow unaware of the existence of this basement in the house, or of its dark past of murder and missing people, even though they seem to be experts on all other matters of history concerning the house. They are rushing to get the house fixed up well enough for a cover story in Architectural Digest, which will pave the way for them to sell the house. Mysterious events start happening in the house. Things go missing. Kim's clothes are shredded. Sally is blamed for this, but claims innocence. Sally hears voices in the night, calling out to her. This leads her to discover the hidden basement of the house where she unwittingly unleashes its deadly menace. Danger quickly escalates until everyone in the house is in a fight for their very lives.
One of the real stars of the film is the house itself, which is actually located in Australia. The way it is dressed up for the movie with elaborate, intimidating carvings and murals, helps set the mood for the film. Perhaps the key role in the film is Sally, and Bailee Madison is perfect in that role as a very troubled young girl from a broken family. She is at first fascinated by the strange forces in the house, then is deathly scared of them when the danger becomes apparent. Katie Holmes also gives a spot-on performance as Alex's girlfriend who doesn't want to be “the wicked stepmother” and is hurt by Sally's rejection. Sally and Kim are finally drawn together because of Alex's preoccupation with getting the house ready for sale. He is essentially withdrawn most of the time. Sally finally reaches out to Kim for help. It is an interesting dynamic.
The film is effective because it is essentially character-driven. It must also be noted there are a number of standard horror film conceits one has to put up with here. Even when Kim finally decides to get Sally out of danger, there are endless, inexplicable delays in doing so, predictably leading to more danger. When a man is seriously hurt in the house, there is a police investigation, but Kim seems to be the only person who appears to ask him the obvious question, namely how he was attacked and by whom? When she does ask, he doesn't give clear answers. He talks in a kind of cryptic code, like a screenwriter giving vague clues to advance the film's plot, instead of just saying what happened in plain language. I suppose it is too much to ask to have a believable plot in a film with such a fantastic premise, but I found some of these plot points a bit lazy and annoying. I also didn't like the cruelty and unfairness in some parts of the film, but that's the way the genre often works. If you like creepy movies that are a bit grisly, this is better than most films of this ilk. All the talent that went into this does show. It rates a B.
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