What was Gulliermo Del Toro thinking? The director who gave us “Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” came up with this? (Del Toro is writer and producer while Troy Nixey directed.) The film has received some positive reviews from a few critics, most notably from Roger Ebert. Pay no attention to that. Pay attention to the C- grade from Cinemascore. (Cinemascore is a market research firm that does immediate exit polling of average movie goers. Thus it provides a summary of a real audience’s reaction to a film. Sometimes cinemascore grades are unreliable because the audience is skewed: case in point the high grades given to the Transformers series. But in this case where you have a diverse, relatively educated audience, they’re bang on. And a C- is very low as a CinemaScore.)
Now before I continue, let me address the big issue: why not listen to Ebert rather than me? After all, he won a Pulitzer Prize. That definitely trumps the teaching award I received in 2005. If I may, let me respond by pointing to C.S. Lewis’s comments in his Reflections on the Psalms. Lewis addressed the question of why you should read a literary critic who doesn’t know Hebrew on the Psalms. His answer was that sometimes a lack of specialist knowledge allows one to get at the essentials of a passage, unencumbered by the endless qualifications and clarifications that can come with specialist knowledge. I submit the same is true for my review. Ebert has more knowledge of cinema in his toenail shavings than I have in my cranium. But that fact actually helps me get to the nub of the issue for the average movie goer.
And what is that nub?
Here it is: the film is meant to be scary. It isn’t. It’s boring. And endlessly silly. And a little bit funny. And if a film is meant to be scary but is actually boring and endlessly silly and a little bit funny then the deal is off. It’s like a handsome Italian sports car that won’t start. I don’t care how much you talk about the quality of the paint. I’m not interested.
At this point be warned: spoilers may lay ahead. But if you’re still worried about spoilers at this point in the review then you haven’t been listening to a thing I’ve said.
The film centers on a father (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes) who are living in a scary old Victorian mansion when the father’s daughter (Bailee Madison) comes to live with them. Since I forget the names of the first two characters I’ll just call them Dad and Girlfriend. I can’t forget the daughter’s name (it is “Sally”) because the little gremlins in the walls keep whispering it over and over, apparently in a futile attempt to create some sense of impending doom. (The only sense of impending doom I felt related to the growing realization that I had wasted twenty bucks on tickets and popcorn.)
Sally wanders the large, scary home and discovers a basement with a hearth that has things in it which keep doing the above mentioned whispering. When, eventually, you see the things doing the whispering you immediately wish you hadn’t. They look like little 8 inch ugly humanoid creatures with very bad teeth. As the film shamelessly depicts the little nasties running around wreaking havoc you begin to realize this is going to be about as scary as “Gremlins”.
For me things definitely took a turn for the worst at the dinner party. It is meant to be an occasion for dad, an architect, to show off his handiwork of restoring the mansion to Architectural Digest. But as the guests arrive Sally has a Polaroid camera (yes a Polaroid. Did she buy it on Ebay?) and she takes a picture of one of the gremlins peaking out of a green plant. That reminded me of the opening scene of “Toy Story” where the toy soldiers are staking out the birthday party downstairs and providing reports back to Woody and the gang. And once I started thinking of that I went on to think how I wish Buzz Lightyear, Woody, and the rest of the gang were here to battle Sally’s gremlins. Now that would be entertaining.
Anyway Dad doesn’t believe Sally about the gremlins. But Girlfriend suspects something might be up. So she goes to the local public library to do some research. I don’t know about your local public library, but mine has primary colors, giant choo choo train decals, and a community announcements billboard. The local branch Girlfriend visits looks like the reading room from the Vatican Library. Impressive.
While at the library Girlfriend discovers that these little gremlin creatures have been stealing human beings for centuries. But then at some point in the 900s the Pope, yes the same Pope that uses the real Vatican reading room, signed a treaty with the gremlins so that they would agree to take human teeth rather than human lives to satiate their desires or needs or whatever.
Wait a minute. Don’t visualize that or you’ll burst into laughter. Am I supposed to envision an entourage of 8 inch gremlins arriving at the Vatican for a formal document signing ceremony? Like I said, this film is unintentionally funny.
As events unfold Dad, Girlfriend, and yes poor Sally, all act very stupid. They might as well have covered themselves with honey before venturing into the Hundred Acre Wood. Don’t be surprised when you find Winnie the Pooh gumming your ankles. You deserve it.
In the end Girlfriend is whisked away to certain doom down the hearth in a scene that reminded me of the ending in another recent film, “Drag me to hell.” Sally and Dad are spared however. Ironically their survival created the biggest chill of the entire film: the possibility of a sequel.