Spooky doings, both here on earth and on the moon

by Mark Burger

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark , a fairly dopey but well-made remake of a fairly dopey but well-remembered 1973 small-screen chiller, is directed by Troy Nixey (his feature debut) under the auspices of executive producer/co-screenwriter Guillermo del Toro.

Young Bailee Madison plays Sally, a young girl still pained by her parents’ recent divorce. Now she’s staying with her father (Guy Pearce) and Dad’s new girlfriend (Katie Holmes) in the enormous, ornate Rhode Island mansion they’re restoring for an article in Architectural Digest — the hope being that it’ll make the cover.

Making the cover of Architectural Digest will soon become the least of anyone’s worries.

As the opening scenes indicate, this house has a dire history (and looks it) — thanks to the collection of diminutive demons that reside in the basement. Not unlike a classic fairy tale, these creatures favor young children as their victims, and soon enough Sally finds herself their target.

Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton provides appropriately creepy ambiance to the proceedings, but del Toro and Matthew Robbins’ screenplay drags a thin concept to the limit and beyond. When the little beasties are at large, the grown-ups never seem to be looking in the right direction, which almost becomes comical as the story proceeds. Despite all the weird goings-on, Sally is singularly unable to convince anyone of the danger at large.

The del Toro influence is clearly evident where Sally, played with great empathy by Madison, explores her new surroundings in scenes that recall one of his best films, Pan’s Labyrinth. Similarly, the film is mostly told from the child’s point of view. Nice touches, to be sure, but here they don’t add up to much.

Playing the dimmest parental figures in recent memory, Holmes and Pearce are at least attractive and personable, and reliable Jack Thompson adds a touch of gravitas (seasoned with a touch of ham) as the local handyman, whose warnings to stay out of the basement, naturally, go unheeded — even by him.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is neither a good or successful film, but it’s enjoyable enough on no-think terms. It looks spooky and has a few scary moments. Not enough to sustain, but it’s never dull.

Apollo 18 is a mock documentary of sorts, purported to be “found footage” of NASA’s final moon mission back in 1974. Never heard of it? That’s because the mission was classified.

Of course, that’s not the only reason, as this film dramatizes. This is a gimmick movie, the gimmick being that what’s being watched actually occurred and was subsequently hushed up. There’s an old adage that film doesn’t lie. Sure it does, all the time. Just go to the movies.

Echoing such previous efforts as The Blair Witch Project (1999), Megan is Missing (2010) and the Paranormal Activity films (the third one’s on the way), the “reality” approach gives Apollo 18 its novelty. The film nicely approximates the grainy, choppy visual quality of the era’s camerawork.

Warren Christie and Lloyd Owen play the astronauts who land on the moon, while Ryan Robbins is the one orbiting overhead, waiting for them to complete their mission. Very quickly — the film runs under 90 minutes — it becomes obvious that something’s afoot: strange noises, communication interference, mysterious footprints on the surface, and occasionally the surveillaince cameras glimpse sudden movement. The men on the moon are not alone.

In gimmick movies, the gimmicks tend only to go so far, and director Gonzalo Lopez- Gallego wisely keeps the film moving at a steady pace, building suspense with a few welltimed jolts, and Christie and Owen have an easy rapport as the increasingly and justifiably paranoid space jocks.

Given what transpires in the film, one can’t help but wonder why the previous Apollo missions didn’t encounter such phenomena, and precisely how was the footage we’re watching obtained? These questions best not directly addressed; suspension of disbelief is required for a film like this. Apollo 18 is not a movie to think too deeply about. It’s a diversion, and not a bad one at that. One either goes with the gimmick or doesn’t, enjoying the presentation or not. It can go either way.