Title: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
Play time: 1h 39min
Director: Troy Nixey
Screenwriters: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Starring: Jack Thompson, Bailee Madison, Guy Pearce, Katie Holmes
The most important thing I can tell you about Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is that it’s the fun kind of horror movie – scary, and violent, and dark as you like, but not mean, if you get me. In this way, it’s reminiscent of Wes Craven’s best work, and more recently the likes of Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell. It’s easy enough to gross the audience out; to upset people and bring them to despair. Much harder to make them squirm and smile.
The Mansion with a Dark History in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
Co-written by old-school genre wizards Guillermo del Toro (Mimic, Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) and Matthew Robbins (Dragonslayer), Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has the wisdom to like its characters. It’s particularly fond of Sally (Bailee Madison), a sad little girl sent by her inattentive mother to live with her equally inattentive father in the giant New England mansion he and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) are obsessed with refurbishing. As we found out in the ominous prologue, the mansion has a dark history. There’s something lurking in the basement and in the plumbing; something that can scurry and whisper in English, and likes children’s teeth.
The sprawling, mahogany-lined house is beautiful, its rooms filled with rays of light pouring in from the huge mosaic windows. This is the rare haunted mansion that’s tastefully appointed and welcoming; even the boarded-up basement, which turns out to harbor something truly unpleasant, is dusty but charming in a shambling sort of way. I’d live there. The cinematography by Oliver Stapleton is beautiful and fluid, even when the frame starts to fill with little CGI nasties.
Sally doesn’t like the house so much. The talented Bailee Madison plays her as desponded and angry over being sent to live with her dad, but also collected, a little sardonic; she’s not about to throw a tantrum. (She has a lovely exchange with Katie Holmes’ Kim early in the film, about a beloved trinket the latter carries around. “It belonged to my grandmother. My mom gave it to me when I was young,” she tells the girl, who responds without missing a beat: “My mom gave me to my dad.”) In the way of 10 year-olds, her sadness quickly turns to curiosity and then to fear. The film is sympathetic; her emotions are never played for laughs. There’s more going on than whatever supernatural presence is after her.
‘Supernatural’ Presence Manifests as Whispers and Shadows
Said supernatural presence is scarier in the first half of the film, when it manifests as whispers and shadows and rustling in the vents. When we finally see what’s been sneaking around the house and making all that trouble, the effect is a little goofy, a bit like if you found out that the villain of the horror movie you were watching was a bunch of Furbys. But they’re still undeniably threatening, and the second half of the film has a playful Gremlins sort of quality that I enjoyed. And it’s pretty freaky when they talk.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has Fairy Tail Quality
The movie is brisk and very engaging, confidently directed by first-timer Troy Nixey, with a lovely Elfman-esque musical score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders. It has its share of jump scares, and more than its share of peering into dark places over the shoulders of its characters, clenching teeth and hoping that nothing leaps out. Its mythology, delivered in the usual third-act burst of exposition by a weirdly good-looking librarian, isn’t much, but it has a fairy tale quality that seems appropriate to the staunchly old-fashioned film.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark may bring to mind Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, which also involved a young girl sneaking around a vast property and discovering a secret and frightening world that lurks within. Lacking Pan’s wartime setting and air of desperation, this film doesn’t have the same emotional heft, but nor is it weightless. At heart, it’s a poignant story about parental indifference and emotional neglect, and the dark, scary things that sometimes fill the spaces of the mind that those things leave hollow.