Director Robert Tinnell makes "family films," and he makes them well. He has a way of exploring important issues, such as familial communication, trust and loss, by coalescing emotions into a series of subtly potent moments. Oh, and he also loves monster movies. A life-long fan of classic (and not so classic-Believe features two scenes inspired by the 1941 Bela Lugosi Monogrammer The Invisible Ghost!) horror cinema, Tinnell turned his earlier Frankenstein and Me (1996) into a touching homage to growing up with monster movies. So for those of us with children ourselves (or for the monster movie-loving child in all of us), Tinnell makes our kind of movies. And Believe is his even more polished attempt to put some fright (and insight) into family fare. "I wanted to make a film where Hardy Boys meet the Wuthering Heights, and I hope that's what I did," explained Tinnell (who also concocted the film's story line). Indeed he did, with a touch of Val Lewton thrown in for good measure.
Believe centers on Ben Stiles (Ricky Mabe), the 14-year-old son of a diplomat, whose absentee parents have put him in a succession of boarding schools. Ben has a very unusual way to liven things up-he stages elaborate fright gags to scare his fellow pupils. After his latest stunt gets him expelled, he's sent to stay with his estranged grandfather (Jan Rubes), a reserved and imposing man who lives in a large, forbidding mansion. As the two try to establish some sort of relationship, Ben comes to realize that the estate is haunted by the ghost of a young woman-something the grandfather refuses to discuss. With the help of a recently orphaned girl named Katherine (Elisha Cuthbert), Ben attempts to unravel the mystery, leading to a confrontation between his grandfather and Katherine's great uncle (Ben Gazzara) over tragic events that transpired long ago and have affected their lives ever since.
Tinnell fills his film with nice eerie touches; shots of a shadow on a wall, leaves rustling in the wind, and shafts of illuminating moonlight (not to mention some evocative, prowling camerawork) generate an uneasy atmosphere.
"My goal in this one was really to find out if I can scare people," explained Tinnell. "I'm not a guy who runs away from that label; if you point and say 'he's a horror filmmaker,' I say great. So my goal was to prove I could do that."
But there's more to Tinnell's movie than just scaring young 'uns. "My other goal was to do something that would provide an entry level horror film for kids, with a positive message. And again, there's been a theme that's run through all four of my films pretty much: communication, the family. And I thought what better way to demonstrate how just not talking to one another, the damage it does to families. And I really do believe in that." Believe is really a story of families and relationships and the importance of communication-with an engrossing ghost yarn to hang these ten-gallon emotional hats on.
Don't be put off by Believe's so-called target audience. "It's primarily for kids from, say, eight to fourteen-primarily," admits Tinnell. "But I like to think that children of all ages, from eight to eighty, can enjoy this film. I think the best family films-this is not a children's film, obviously-I think the best family films are the ones in which the parents are sitting and watching with the kids, which is what they should be doing anyway, but don't.. I think that it works for all ages." Indeed it does.
Tinnell's heart (and, given the finished product, head) is in the right place. "I'm not going to condescend to the kids," emphasizes the director. "They deserve a good scare. Nowadays if they want to see any kind of contemporary horror, there's so much misogyny and just gratuitous bloodletting-and it's just not scary and there's no real supernaturalism. I just wanted to make a film that if I was 12 I would have loved.
In the movie, Ben explains why he stages his terror tricks by observing, "People like to be scared." Yes they do, and here Tinnell has offered up his own fright frolic, with some important ideas and involving sentiments thrown in for good measure. Aimed at those monster movie lovers who've grown up and had kids of their own (as well as those who've never really grown up at all), Believe is a sometimes scary, often affecting and always entertaining movie for the whole family. And that is a rare commodity these days.
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