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Don't Be Afraid
Of The Dark

Based on a 1973 made-for-television film of the same name embraced by horror aficionados, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark seemed a likely candidate for the remake treatment. It’s a seldom seen take on the haunted house sub genre that is a perfect fit for Guillermo del Toro, who serves as this remake’s co-producer and co-writer.

But the fact that the original release date was January 21st didn’t boost my confidence that a filmmaker I respect could save this movie. In fact, if the ads and posters for the movie didn’t have del Toro’s name listed, I doubt anyone would stop and think twice about being afraid of the dark. 

The film begins with a disturbing prologue that likely earned its R rating and will probably confirm anyone already uncomfortable at the dentist. Then we are whisked off through a whimsical Burtonesque/Elfmanesque animated opening credit sequence which places us in a Gothic estate in Rhode Island. Leaves rustle and doors creak open, as we’re introduced to an old mansion being renovated by architect Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes), an interior designer who lives in a house once inhabited by a disturbed artist named Blackwood. 

Abandoned by her mother in Los Angeles, Sally (Bailee Madison) is sent to live with her father, Alex, leaving her quite nervous and apprehensive with her new surroundings. As much as Alex and Kim try to make Sally comfortable during this difficult transition, they are both preoccupied, he with dreams of having this house on the cover of Architectural Digest and she with insecure doubts of being the evil stepmother.

Left to herself in this cavernous home, Sally discovers a hidden basement and despite the dire warnings of groundskeeper Harris (Jack Thompson), she uncovers a dark secret, unknowingly releasing a horde of evil little nocturnal homunculi.

Of course, all suspicious activity is blamed on poor Sally. Her father sees her unsettling behavior as a desire to lash out at her current geographic change. But he doesn’t know that she is being victimized by tiny goblin nasties that want her to become one of them deep in the subterranean bowels of this property (after they feed on her teeth, that is).

It is up to Sally to convince Kim (or anyone who will believe her) that what she’s experiencing is real, as is the maniacal threat that is closing in on the inhabitants of this haunted house. 

Although I haven’t seen the original with Kim Darby (from what I hear, I’m not missing much), the main difference is the addition of a little girl as the main character. That’s nothing entirely too foreign considering del Toro often uses children as protagonists (The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth), and at least the movie has an actor who is quite capable in 11 year-old Bailee Madison. Having caught my attention as an impressive talent in the past, with noticeable performances in “Brothers” and “Conviction”, here the mature actress is squashed by a limiting script drowning in conventional tropes.

It’s too bad that both del Toro and screenwriter Matthew Robbins (both collaborated on del Toro’s “Mimic”) are immersed in exhausted characterization, because Troy Nixey makes an impressive directorial debut here. Although his camera is a bit restless, there remains a commendable fairy tale vibe present throughout the entire feature. Too bad the humans get in the way.

The formula of the clueless and inattentive parent has been done ad nauseam and the role of Alex gives nothing for the talented Pearce to do anything with. Beyond being self-conscious and concerned, the already limited Holmes just can’t being anything else to her.

The creepy little critters who run amok in the house are frightening at first, but the more we see of them, the more annoying they become. They can’t stand light and (I imagine) fire, so why hasn’t anyone ever just burned this entire place down to the ground and be done with it all?
I guess for the same reason that a no one ever takes children seriously in horror movies, unless they're spewing pea soup and their head is spinning. It’s too much to ask for adults to behave realistically in these movies, something that would make the movies even more unnerving. 

I felt as sorry for the character of Sally as I did for Bailee Madison. Both are stunted by adults who can’t seem to trust the sensibilities of a young girl.

While there are a few creepy moments here after the opening scene, what I experienced throughout the movie was a growing frustration. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark suffers in that it is obviously afraid to provide illuminating characters (with common sense intact) that we can be afraid for. 

(This review also appears on David's own website, Keeping It Reel.)


David J. Fowlie

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