When little Sally (Bailee Madison) is forced to live with her father (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend (Katie Holmes), she feels nothing but abandonment in the sprawling old house they are renovating. But Sally is not really alone, as she finds some mysterious new friends who live under the house. But the voices calling her out to play are not quite what they seem…
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark comes from the pen of producer Guillermo del Toro and is inspired by a TV movie made in 1973. That spare horror offering never gained much cult appeal on this side of the Atlantic but for the young del Toro it remains one of his more enduring genre memories (see his interview for more
). Intent on bringing the terror to a whole new generation, he’s teamed up with first time feature director and comic book artist Troy Nixey and a decent cast for this new version.
The film starts poorly, giving us a period prologue which establishes some of the history of Blackwood manor. Here, the filmmakers make a near fatal error, over-exposing the plot and making it clear from the off that the creatures are nothing less than pure evil. The introduction does its job on a purely generic level, providing some jump scares to pin people to their seats, but it spoils any future mystery and, together with a graphic heavy title sequence, could have been excised completely.
Things improve once the main story gets underway, as Sally struggles to understand why she has been sent away from her mother and, together with the unsure advances of Holmes’ character, finds real reason to look for a friend in the voices. It’s here that the film is most successful, mixing creepy elements with the naïve curiosity of the young to great effect. As things become more sinister, it’s easy for the adults to brush off her stories as the stuff of childish nightmares but when the violence escalates, Holmes begins an investigation into the history of the isolated manor.
There’s a startling incongruity to several aspects of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark – from Pearce’s alarming indifference to his clearly distressed daughter to the order of sequences; Sally takes a supposedly leisurely bath, alone, in the wake of a terrifying attack. A late on dinner party after the pseudo family has already decided to leave the house takes things even further, leaving the audience less than sympathetic when the inevitable eventually happens.
The technical side is at least impressive, particularly the willingness to assault the viewer with genuinely dark scenes. The creatures are halfway unique, with a slight resemblance to the 1973 versions, and skitter about in their dozens through effective CG. But there’s nothing cautious about their reveal and overexposure soon sets in. Still, they’re an agreeably evil bunch who pull no punches in their pursuit of Sally and the film earns its 16’s rating with some vicious moments.
Madison does good work here, seemingly plausibly curious until she’s realistically terrified. Holmes is fine, injecting some much needed warmth into proceedings as she slowly comes to believe Sally’s stories while Pearce is on autopilot, and a pretty unlikeable character to boot.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark ratchets up to a surprisingly grim finale but is so indifferently effective up to then that you may find your sympathy lacking. It looks well and the monsters are unique but a weak opening, too much pointless backstory and aberrant reactions from the characters make for an uneven film. We can’t help wishing del Toro was at the helm.
Check out the trailers for the 1973 original and the remake.