Movie Review: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
By Matthew Huntley
August 31, 2011

I'm sure there is absolutely nothing wrong with this place.

Horror fans have every right to expect more from Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark than what the movie delivers. After all, it was co-written and produced by the great Guillermo del Toro, whose last credit in the genre was The Orphanage, the superb Spanish horror film that was both emotional and scary. But Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is in a lesser league, one that makes the movie seem dispensable and amateurish, which is not something you expect from a movie with del Toro’s hand in it.

One of the problems is the presentation. Instead of slowly creating a disturbing and spooky ambiance, the movie makes a mad dash for the gruesome and sensational, which gets old too quickly. The director, Troy Nixey, should have been told the most effective horror movies take their time to establish a mood and make the setting a character in and of itself. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark had a golden opportunity with its large and brooding sets, but it brushes over them with swift camera moves and quick cuts so we don’t really get a chance to ingest the atmosphere.

The story takes place in one of those perpetually autumnal, leafy New England towns, where a quiet little girl named Sally (Bailee Madison) has just flown out from Los Angeles to live with her father (Guy Pearce) and his younger girlfriend (Katie Holmes). He’s an architect and she an interior designer, and both have dreams of restoring an 18th century mansion so it can be featured on the cover of a prominent magazine. The girlfriend, Kim, tries to befriend Sally, but the little girl can’t help but feel sad, rejected and unwanted. She takes Adderall and solemnly tells Kim, “My mom gave me to my dad.”

It’s no wonder, then, that Sally spends most of her time exploring on her own. Behind the mansion, she discovers a window to a hidden basement, which the groundskeeper (Jack Thompson) says is too dangerous to be played around by children. But Sally’s dad is quick to tear down the wall and see what’s down there. The audience already knows this is the same basement from the movie’s opening scene, where the mansion’s original owner murdered his maid and stole her teeth. He wasn’t doing it to be malicious, but to appease an army of grotesque, buggy-eyed little creatures, each about a foot tall, who kidnapped his son. The creatures, which have been stealing children for centuries, talk to Sally and promise her companionship. They tell her to unlock the furnace door that leads to their underground world but she learns too late they intend to take her. For what, exactly, we’re not sure, other than to make her one of them.

Of course, Sally’s dad doesn’t believe her when she says she’s hearing voices and that little monsters are tormenting her. He simply thinks Sally is disturbed and isolated, so he sets her up with a child psychiatrist, a development that could have delved deeper into Sally’s psychosis and contained richer, more insightful dialogue, but it merely serves as a time-filler. Kate, on the other hand, does some independent research and begins to suspect Sally might be telling the truth, which leads to the foregone climax where the creatures finally reveal themselves to the adults and all hell breaks loose.

Along with del Toro’s involvement, the ads for Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark were creepy and well-edited, which is why I assumed the movie would be a winner. But like most run-of-the-mill horror, it’s too pre-occupied with cheap shocks for it to leave any sort of lasting impression. Most of the scenes show Sally yelling and crying in agony as she reacts to the CGI creatures, which grows redundant and, eventually, inconsequential.

To be fair, though, Bailee Madison gives a good performance and generates enough sympathy and dimension for Sally so we care about her well-being. But as good as Madison is, even she can’t make the creatures, who are nothing more than skinny, raggedy gremlins, seem all that real or threatening. They come off as sort of goofy, and instead of being scary, they’re obnoxious little buggers you just want to squash. Perhaps if the movie took a longer time to reveal them, their appearance wouldn’t have been such a joke.

And while Madison deserves praise for her acting, the same cannot be said of the adults. Guy Pearce, who usually elicits a strong screen presence (L.A. Confidential, Memento), is at a distance here and doesn’t give his usual conviction. His delivery and reactions to the events around him come off as shallow and artificial. Katie Holmes, meanwhile, has yet to prove herself a full-fledged actress, capable of embodying a character that’s not Katie Holmes.

If you haven’t seen The Orphanage, make it a point to rent it, and if you have, see it again. It’s horror done right. Either way, you’re okay to avoid Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which is mostly an empty exercise in design and effects but lacks the substance needed to bond them together in a meaningful story. In the end, it’s not the dark we’re afraid of as much as the idea Guillermo del Toro may have lost his edge. Now that’s scary.