I generally enjoy Guillermo Del Toro’s forays into horror fantasy, but the film doesn’t even touch Pan’s Labyrinth in terms of story, artistic sensibility, or much else. Granted, Del Toro didn’t direct it, but he did write and produce it – and I’m sure he had a hand in the design work. His co-writer/producer Matthew Robbins is also no slacker either, having writing credits for Spielberg (Sugarland Express and Close Encounters) and directing Dragonslayer and *batteries Not Included (if you like that kind of thing). So, perhaps its first time feature director Troy Nixey that couldn’t handle the material. Or, maybe its just a silly story based on a 1973 TV movie.
It’s a terribly flawed story from its inception. The mythology is twisted and confusing, so you never really know what’s at stake. We get from the beginning that there are little creatures that live in a chimney. They need teeth (later on we find that they want children’s teeth), and that a creepy old guy seemingly needs the teeth to trade for his little boy that the little creatures have taken away. But they reneg on the deal and take the old dude into their creepy, dark chimney.
Flashforward a hundred some odd years and the house where all this has happened is being refurbished by Architect Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend/interior designer Kim (Katie Holmes). Alex’s troubled 8-year old daughter, Sally, joins them. Immediately, the girl starts hearing whispering and follows it to reveal a hidden basement that the remodeling team never was able to find. Instead of being scared, she seems intrigued by whispery voices calling out to her from a bolted iron grate, and she opens said grate. Oops.
Things escalate as Alex blames Sally for making things up, and a concerned Kim investigates the background of the house and the previous art/owner (the old guy in the prologue). But, despite people getting hurt, and Sally screaming in every scene, Alex is destined to be on the cover of Architectural Digest and has the reps over to a lavish dinner. Kim, somewhat believing Sally’s stories of little creatures, promises Sally that after dinner they will leave the house. Sally confides that the creatures don’t like light. And as a brilliant idea, Kim gives Sally a Polaroid with a flash bar. I’m not sure if the idea is that it’s a weapon against the creatures because of the flash – or Sally is supposed to try and get proof of the creatures. But like a movie cop’s revolver, Sally’s camera never runs out of film or flashes. It ends up not really making a difference because despite all the photos Sally was getting of the creatures as they attack her in the library, no one ever seems to look at the photos, and not even the audience gets to see them. In fact, Sally smashes a creature causing it to lose its arm – which we have a specific closeup of it falling – and no one ever says “Say! What’s this little grey arm!” What does Alex do instead? He gives Sally medication and puts her to bed – but at least they make a decision to go to a hotel.
Next comes the climax of the film where we get to see lots of little creatures running all over, but nothing makes sense. Alex goes to the garage to prep the car, but creatures wrap a rope around his feet, and pull his feet out from under him. He hits his head and passes out from a presumed concussion. Inside, they trip Kim on the staircase. She passes out also from a presumed concussion, losing consciousness as the creatures approach her. Then we go to Sally who wakes from her stupor, but by the time she gets down the stairs to Kim, Kim looks untouched. Then creatures overrun Sally. We cut to Alex in the garage who is trapped in the garage with the car running. Evidently, despite the fact that these creatures have been trapped in a chimney for 130 years, they know the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning. Cut back to Sally, who wakes up (I didn’t know she passed out again) and her feet are bound and she is being pulled toward the chimney in the basement — not directly mind you. But through the foyer, down the curved staircase into the basement, and across the basement. It’s like a trap Foghorn Leghorn would set for the Barnyard Dog.
I won’t tell you how it ends, but its abrupt and totally unsatisfying. You don’t even have the satisfaction of Alex acknowledging that he’s been a dick, and that Sally was right all along.
The film is beautiful to look at, leaning heavy on chiaroscuro to keep the light-hating creatures in their darkness. The CG work is adequate, but not entirely convincing. I don’t think its as much a fault of the FX artists as the idea of these critters in general. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief long enough or care about the characters deep enough to let myself be invested. They just weren’t a threat. They are like the Stripe clan of Gremlins, but not as big and not even as viscious.
Guy Pearce can be great, and Katie Holmes is no slouch. But both seem to have called in these roles. Bailee Madison is not too bad as the sulky Sally, and if you plopped a blonde wig on her she could have been Heather O’Rourke’s double in the first and second Poltergeist movies. But, like I said before. I really could have cared less about anyone or anything.