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In I’m Not Scared, a 10-year-old boy sees dead people. Well, for one thoroughly creepy moment in this Italian quasi-thriller, he at least thinks he does. But though director Gabriele Salvatores commits the recently clichéd sin of pairing cute kids with spooky situations, he proves that it can be done without oh-please predictability.
That isn’t to say I’m Not Scared is a complete success. For approximately the first third of this leisurely hour-and-48-minute film, though, the story is mesmerizing. Based on a novel by Niccolò Ammaniti, who also adapted the script, I’m Not Scared takes place in 1978. It begins with Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) and his little sister, Maria (Giulia Matturo), running with their friends through the golden wheat fields of a southern Italian village. With nothing but sun and open space filling their days, the kids create their own dramas—races, dares, fantastic tales—until Michele stumbles onto something more exciting: While searching for Maria’s gigantic glasses near an abandoned house where the gang was playing, he uncovers a pit, at the bottom of which he spies a motionless foot sticking out of a blanket.
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To this point, I’m Not Scared is as lyrical as Salvatores’ 1991 Oscar winner, Mediterraneo. Training a camera on a lush Italian countryside may seem like an easy way to create a blissed-out atmosphere, but if Under the Tuscan Sun was good for anything, it proved that it takes more than sunny vistas to make a movie. Wisely, Salvatores fortifies the charm of his fluidly shot landscapes with a depiction of a joyously simple lifestyle and quietly irresistible characters. When the adorable (but rather serious) Maria tries to talk Michele down from a tree, for example, she responds to his petulant assertion that he’s no longer her brother with “Can I have your comic books?”
Salvatores maintains a sense of wonder throughout the movie by holding fast to Michele’s perspective, keeping mysterious a plot line that an American thriller would likely hit us over the head with. A crime has been committed, and the film’s gentle setup makes the dark turn as surprising to the viewer as it is to Michele. What makes I’m Not Scared problematic, however, is that as suddenly as the spine-tingling development is introduced, it’s just as quickly backed away from. There’s a simple explanation to what Michele has found, and Ammaniti reveals it at the film’s midpoint—which is pretty much when things stop being interesting. I’m Not Scared then reverts back to joie de vivre atmospherics, kids giggling and rolling around in the fields and all.
After a taste of blood, Salvatores’ idyll may start to feel a little trite. But then again, judging the film’s success might be a matter of perspective: Depending on what you’re hoping to see, I’m Not Scared is a failed thriller, an exceedingly tame crime drama, or an enjoyable, Stand by Me–esque end-of-innocence story. The body-in-a-hole angle doesn’t get nearly as disturbing as it could, but given the obvious directions I’m Not Scared’s many predecessors have taken similar ideas, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Close Your Eyes uses the kids-and-creepiness tactic in a much more expected—and disappointing—manner. This straight-up horror flick features a Poltergeist-ian little blond girl who spends most of the movie mute or in a trance—a scary-as-shit sight whose effectiveness decreases as the stupidity of the adults around her skyrockets.
ER’s Goran Visnjic stars as Michael Strother, a hypnotherapist who has recently moved his family from America to England and opened a practice devoted to helping smokers quit. The good doctor, it seems, can not only rid people of unwanted behaviors, but also occasionally catch glimpses into his patients’ minds—which is what happens when he treats police investigator Janet Losey (Shirley Henderson). Near the end of Losey’s hypnotic trance—a very cool, partly animated sequence in which a Crayola-colored background of a sunny field and burbling brook turns sinister and ashy at the drag of her cigarette—the Silent One, Heather (Sophie Stuckey), appears in a vision.
Strother, master of discretion that he’ll prove himself to be, mentions the little girl—whoops!—as he’s ushering Losey out the door. Losey soon returns to insist that he help her on a case: She’s been assigned to protect Heather, who recently escaped from a serial killer and now refuses to talk. After some hesitation, Strother agrees and becomes consumed with the case—though not so much that he’ll share what he’s doing with his way-pregnant wife, Clara (Miranda Otto).
Director Nick Willing, who most recently helmed the TV movies Jason and the Argonauts and Alice in Wonderland, sets up the story, based on the Madison Smartt Bell novel Doctor Sleep, with surprising restraint. Strother becomes privy to mere snippets of the evil experiences lurking in Heather’s head, which are revealed in typical cheap-scare fashion but infrequent enough not to annoy. A re-creation of Heather’s kidnapping is also accomplished with eerie grace, cutting back and forth between Heather’s semiconscious re-enactment of her activities that day and the actual event, which is recounted only as far as the image of a shadowy figure behind her home’s frosted-glass door.
But the early chill of Close Your Eyes dissipates as its story becomes more involved—and more absurd. Heather’s kidnapper, who is suspected of having killed other children by injecting them with blood of an incompatible type, is thought to be involved in an ancient religious ritual involving—right—the transfer of consciousnesses between humans. (The laughable comparison that’s made is to tech nerds’ attempts to “transfer their souls into computers.”) This information is pieced together by full-of-trivia model-shop owner Elliot (Paddy Considine), who, though he’s the only weird guy here besides the actual killer, proves that it takes just a touch of overfreakiness to turn a horror film to cheese.
Visnjic and Henderson are worthy enough leads, and though Strother isn’t given much in the way of personality besides a history of insomnia and the requisite dark secret, Losey is a vivid tangle of nervous tics and visible frustration. The pair’s performances can’t hold together a script that collapses under its own ridiculousness, however. Each development is increasingly unbelievable, including a revelation that results after tea is spilled on a map, a child picking up the phone and serving as the killer’s personal 411, and jaw-droppingly dumb behavior by nearly all involved in the case.
Admittedly, sometimes the sheer stupidity of the characters in a killer-thriller is half the fun, but here it makes Close Your Eyes truly a horror. CP