I'm Not Scared

dir. Gabriele Salvatores

Opens Fri April 23.

Close Your Eyes

dir. Nick Willing

Opens Fri April 23.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who remembers the kidnapping craze of the mid-1980s. During that time it was almost impossible to avoid news reports, TV movies (Adam, anyone?), public school "don't take candy from strangers" seminars, and even comic books aimed alternately at terrifying and cautioning little kids and their parents about the looming specter of creepy men with windowless vans, who prowl the streets and malls of suburbia looking to snatch kids away from their lives and sell them into unthinkable hells of servitude and victimhood. From what I can gather from local news reports--which have lately been focusing on the curious phenomenon of "attempted child luring"--abduction is back with a vengeance.

It stands to reason, then, that there are two psychological thriller/horror films opening this weekend whose chief scare tactic is the threat and reality of kidnapping. Interestingly enough, neither of the films is from Hollywood; one's Italian, one's British, and their approaches to treating the phenomenon as a narrative device are as different as the two countries themselves.

I'm Not Scared is set against the panoramic wheat fields of southern Italy, where a young boy named Michele lives with his family in a small village. He rides his rickety bike across the rolling dirt roads, shepherding his little sister, helping his bedraggled (and super foxy) mom, playing with a bunch of neighbor kids he doesn't like, and generally bursting forward with the sleepy summertime energy of pre-adolescence. Soaring across these plains, Michele is a coming-of-age hero waiting to happen, and happen he does when he comes across a hole in the ground behind an old, abandoned villa. Peeling back the corrugated metal cover, he spies what at first appears to be a mongrel animal in a shaft of blinding sunlight. It turns out to be a little boy who has been kidnapped and held for ransom in the middle of this giant nowhere. Instantly, Michele's golden fields of hormonal wonder are transformed into a terrifying expanse of dread and peril.

As the drama unfolds, Michele discovers that the kidnapping is a national news story, in which he is unwittingly cast in the role of savior to this stolen child. It's a perfect fantasy scenario for a lonely 10-year-old boy; the captive kid is even a little younger and smaller than our hero. Complicating matters, meanwhile, is the mounting certainty that Michele's own father is implicated in the abduction, which makes the rescue effort all the more fraught with Freudian implications. These vectors are both the bane and the salvation of this picture, which successfully transcends genre, only to suffer under the weight of its own unlikeliness. That is, the more "real" the story becomes, the less plausible its coincidences feel. In that sense, I'm Not Scared fails to achieve the deep childhood horror of its obvious forebears (like Agnieszka Holland's Olivier, Olivier, or Mark Peploe's Afraid of the Dark). Just before it gets there, the plot takes over and the film misses the mark.

What never falters is director Gabriele Salvatores' facility with creating atmosphere. The dry air, the hot sun, the dirt roads, the worn sandals, the glowing wheat--all of it bears the stamp of intimate knowledge; these are the elements of Michele's perception, which may or may not be wholly reliable. Trustworthy or not, however, all is sharply observed. The early home scenes, during which the small family waits for the father to return home from a business trip (we get the sense he isn't home much) have a melancholy air, but they also capture the freewheeling emotional state of a 10-year-old's inner life--with enough distance to have a sense of humor about it. After being yelled at by his parents, Michele is hiding in a big oak tree, idly cutting at its bark with a pocketknife. When his baby sister calls him in to dinner, he refuses. "Tell them I'm not their son anymore and I'm not coming home," he spits.

"Does that mean you're not my brother anymore?" she replies, chagrined.

"Yes," he says, sternly.

"Then can I have your comic books?"

It's these kinds of exchanges that give I'm Not Scared the ring of unsentimental truth, and the sense that despite the thriller trappings (and the ever-so-slightly troubling erotic voyeurism of the cinematography; the film could easily be read as a NAMBLA wish-fulfillment exercise), it's really a story about a boy confronting his domineering father to become a man.

Close Your Eyes, on the other hand, takes the thriller apparatus much more at face value, and as a result, never gains any kind of character-based momentum. Goran Visnjic plays a kind of defrocked psychic therapist who hypnotizes patients, then reads their minds. He's enlisted as a telepathic Sherlock Holmes by Scotland Yard to help solve the mystery of a string of child abductions and murders. With the help of a junior detective (Shirley Henderson), and a busload of digital special effects, Visnjic stumbles onto a supernatural plot involving soul transference, immortality, and other such occult delights. Unfortunately, despite a promising (if outlandish) premise, the film is a total snooze. Never for a moment does the threat feel threatening; it's just a straight line through to a predictable twist ending. Even the subplot, in which the good doctor's flirtations with the cop lady tempt him away from his very pregnant wife, feels like an afterthought. By the time the inevitable 11th-hour rescue comes along, there's so little riding on the outcome that you almost feel like rooting for the bad guys, just to add a little spice to the story.

While I'm Not Scared and Close Your Eyes are united by theme and continent, they also share an attribute that never serves thrillers particularly well: They're not terribly scary. Failing that, such films need to bring something else to the table, some kind of understanding of the richness of their own metaphors. In this case, only one of them succeeds, and not by much.

sean@thestranger.com

Support The Stranger

Sponsored