9 year-old Bailee Madison (well, the actress is 11 but playing 9) joins her distracted dad Guy Pearce and his girlfriend Katie Holmes at Blackwood Manor, which Pearce (an architect) and Holmes (an interior decorator) are restoring. Madison is a troubled young thing who feels neglected by her mother and she treats the well-meaning Holmes rather horribly. And then Madison uncovers a hidden cellar and starts to hear voices from a grating. Caretaker Jack Thompson warns the girl to stay away from it. Yeah, that’ll happen. And tiny creatures begin to appear, and start to scare the living crap out of the poor girl. Aaawww, she was just looking for a friend! No one believes her stories, especially her rather distant dad, but Holmes can at least see something is wrong here, and starts investigating the background of the house. Garry McDonald appears in the nasty 19th Century prologue as a previous owner of Blackwood who does something unspeakable to his maid.
Filmed in Australia, this 2011 horror/fantasy written by Guillermo Del Toro (director of “Hellboy”, “Pan’s Labyrinth”) and Matthew Robbins (director of “Dragonslayer”, of all films), and directed by newbie Troy Nixey is apparently based on a 1973 TV movie. It reminded me of Joe Dante’s “The Hole” and the 1987 horror flick “The Gate”, and particularly Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”. It doesn’t quite come off, mostly due to some not great FX, but it’s a good try and well-worth watching nonetheless. It’s better and probably more original than I’m making it sound, but it’s certainly bizarre and occasionally very silly. I didn’t know much about the film beforehand, which seemed to help, so you might want to take that in mind right now.
The film opens memorably, and if you don’t wince in this revolting, yet atmospheric, Hammer-esque opener you’re already a cadaver. The film looks great, both externally and internally. Dark corridors, foggy exteriors, an isolated estate...my kind of picture, in many ways. Absolutely beautiful to look at, even the local library is an awesome set. Meanwhile, I don’t think I’ll ever look at Garry McDonald the same way again, and it’s a shame the multi-talented actor is out of the picture so soon. But don’t worry, there’s a wealth of well-known Australian names and faces in the supporting cast here, including a “Neighbours” reunion of sorts for Guy Pearce and Alan Dale.
Make no mistake, however, the best thing this film has going for it is child actress Bailee Madison, who makes up for her shrill and annoying work in the desperate Adam Sandler ‘comedy’ “Just Go For It”, also released in 2011. This girl is remarkable in a very difficult role as a young girl who is not all sweetness and goodness, but that’s quite understandable given all she goes through here (and the fact that she’s on medication for ADHD, something a lot of viewers seem not to have noticed). Madison is effortlessly and terrifyingly believable, you really feel like she’s genuinely going through something here and it’s not just a family breakup. Guy Pearce is also really well-cast in a sadly less-than 3D role, but this is one of the best uses of Katie Holmes in a long time. She can be really cute and lovely when she allows herself to be and doesn’t try to stretch beyond her limits. She doesn’t get much to do per se, but her casting is apt because she’s the hot new stepmother (usually a bitch or villain in movies), yet Holmes makes her empathetic, caring, and sweet, in addition to being the only one to sense something amiss with Madison. By the way, does anyone else see a resemblance between Madison and Suri Cruise? I couldn’t shake that from my mind throughout, though Suri throws much better tantrums, I think. Old pros Jack Thompson and Julia Blake are well-cast in what might be termed the Bruce Dern and Rosalie Crutchley roles, which probably isn’t the best use of their talents. Well, Thompson does get one memorable set piece unlike anything he’s probably done before, I guess.
Although not really a horror film in my view (unless you’re weird and consider “Pan’s Labyrinth” to be horror), it’s still an occasionally unnerving film, if not as unnerving as the director probably thinks (It’s too familiar, perhaps). I have no idea why anyone would invent a carousel that illuminates on the wall in the dark. To me, that’s the most evil thing in the world that doesn’t involve clowns. Frigging hate clowns. Evil buggers that haunt me in my dreams. Um, where was I? Anyway, it’d be interesting to look back on this film ten years from now and see if people claim it to be the film that fucked up their childhood (Apparently Mr. Del Toro was frightened as a child by the original). If it is a horror film, it’s indeed more of a juvenile one than adult-oriented, and that’s not exactly a criticism.
I found the little rat creatures a tad too Full Moon-esque (the company behind the “Puppetmaster” series) or reminiscent of “The Gate” to be truly frightening, and a bit silly and unconvincing. I guess Mr. Del Toro and Mr. Nixey didn’t grow up watching Val Lewton (“Cat People”, “The Body Snatcher”) thrillers, then or else they’d know less is usually more, and that horrors left to the imagination can often be greater. Effective use of a shower curtain as they terrorise her, however.
A peculiar blend of fantasy and juvenile horror, this film doesn’t quite achieve everything one senses it wants to, however, it’s still highly watchable. Bailee Madison is excellent.