Starring: Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison
Written by: Guillermo del Toro/Matthew Robbins
Directed by: Troy Nixey
A Quick Note: If any of you are parents and are concerned about the R rating of this movie, don’t be. Seriously. At all. There’s little blood, no cursing, and no nudity of any kind. It was given this rating because it was deemed “too scary” to be PG-13 but as you’ll soon realize, I think the MPAA and I saw completely different movies.
Adapted from a 1973 made for TV movie of the same name, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark takes the Insidious route and tries to scare its viewer with atmosphere and suspense, rather than cheap gore and shock value. Unfortunately, it isn’t nearly as successful as the latter; instead of being scary or even creepy, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is so ridiculous, it becomes a movie that inspires laughter rather than guttural screams. I’ve got a feeling that wasn’t what they were going for.
Bailee Madison stars as Sally, a young girl whose sent away by her apparently uncaring mother to live with her father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his young girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes). The happy couple are working together to restore an old house in order to put it back on the market and to help boost Alex’s career. The house is in dire need of care, long since abandoned after a famous wildlife painter vanished into thin air back in the days when candles were the go to light source. While exploring her new temporary home, Sally discovers a hidden basement which raises the chagrin of Harris (Jack Thompson), a groundskeeper who knows more than he’s letting on and was trying to keep it hidden. This newfound room houses some work of this famous painter that has never been seen before, and as the three search it, Sally starts to hear voices in the walls. From there, she accidentally releases a group of golem-looking creatures that had been nailed underground thinking they were friendly (kids). But they don’t want to play hop scotch or dollies or whatever Sally was hoping for; they want her. Her teeth to be exact (sigh). The creatures start raising hell, and Sally fights to make Alex and Kim believe her before she’s taken and she disappears forever.
I want to say at the outset that Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark does have some good things going for it. In a visual sense, the movie is appealing and great to look at. The house, especially, is lovingly shot in both a beautiful and sinister way. Madison is also wonderful as Sally; very empathetic and completely outacts the rest of the cast (not in the bullshit Dakota Fanning way in War of the Worlds either; Madison’s legitimately good). And although Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark works at a slow pace, setting up the story and deliberately taking its time revealing the true look of the creatures, it isn’t a drag to sit through. It feels brisk and it’s interesting enough to hold your attention.
But how it holds your attention is a different matter entirely, and at least for me, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark didn’t do it by being scary; it did it by unintentionally being funny. All the tension, atmosphere, and suspense it tries to build up falls completely flat and I can’t tell if it’s first-time director Troy Nixey‘s fault, the script’s (co-written by Guillermo del Toro) fault, or the fact that the premise itself is hokey. A bunch of golems hungering for the teeth of children? Give me a break. It doesn’t help that besides Sally, the characters are boring and drag the movie down. Pearce is given absolutely nothing to do other than fill the “father in denial” role. Holmes gets a bit more to go on, but both the chemistry between her and Pearce and even between her and Madison just isn’t there. Everyone spends the movie talking in monotone voices at each other. And don’t get me started on Harris, who’s just there to push the plot forward later in the movie and could easily be replaced with the character from South Park that warned Stan and Kyle about skiing on that giant mountain.
I’ve also got a minor gripe when it comes to the setting of the movie. I assume it takes place in the present; Alex uses a cell phone, the cars do look modern, etc. But once they hit the house, it becomes some sort of 1800’s time warp where no television, no iPods, no technology of any kind besides the aforementioned cell phone exist. I understand calling a movie like this out on such a small detail is probably dumb to you, but seriously folks: wouldn’t Sally at least have a Nintendo DS? Something? Of course not because that would for some reason not fit. Reasons I’d like to hear, to be honest. While we’re on this, a Polaroid camera? They don’t even make film for that anymore, and if you can find it, it isn’t cheap. A cool aesthetic touch and all, but pointless and out of place.
And what’s the biggest reason Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark doesn’t work as a horror movie? The villainous teeth-obsessed CGI creatures of doom. They aren’t scary, cleverly designed, or even pose much of a threat until the very end; outside of an opening scene that initially sets them up as more bloodthirsty, they tend to be more of a nuisance who crawl around and occasionally cause some chaos. Plus they speak (oh yeah, THEY SPEAK) in a whisper, elongating their words and saying things like “chiiiiilllllllddddd’sssss teeeeeeeth”. How do you not laugh at that? That isn’t scary, that’s ridiculous. When your big (relative term) bad villains don’t feel very villainous or threatening (seriously, they aren’t that hard to kill), that isn’t a great sign.
Part of me thinks that if I didn’t raise myself on a diet of Halloween and Saw movies I might have taken to Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark a little better, but only part of me; regardless of my tastes in the horror genre though, the issues I have would still stand strong especially when it concerns the completely non-threatening and laugh-inducing CGI golem creature things. Again I have to stress that Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is definitely watchable and doesn’t feel tedious; it’s just not nearly as scary as it wants to think it is or the marketing hopes you believe it will be.