Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Really, the best haunted house stories are the ones that are “about” so much more than just a house that’s haunted. Think of The Haunting of Hill House, The Shining, The Others, or even, at a stretch, Forbidden Planet. On the other hand, if you’re making a movie for and about kids, it’s excusable to keep things to the simpler, stuff-just-happens model. On the third hand, if you’re making a movie for kids that features some pretty gruesome violence that fully earns its R rating, things get a little…messy. And I’m not just talking albino monkey-rats, either.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is the story of what happens when young Sally (Bailee Madison) comes to live with her estranged father (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes) in the extremely large and frighteningly gothic mansion that they are neck-deep in renovating in hopes of getting in some magazines and launching their decorating careers, then flipping to make a tidy profit. Recessionary real estate market aside, we already know (from a very grisly pre-credits sequence) how bad an idea this is, as there is something evil and wrong with this house. Indeed, it’s not long before Sally discovers a hidden basement and accidentally unleashes a Force of Unstoppable Evil™.

One of the more frustrating things about Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is that it never seems very clear of its own “rules” – we’re told that the deal that humanity has struck with the evil force is that they take one victim per occupation, but why (in the prologue sequence) do they stick around after taking their first victim? Once everyone realizes that light is the only thing keeping the creatures at bay, why do they keep turning off all the lights at night? Finally, we are told, quite insistently and throughout the movie, that the creatures are after children, specifically Sally – why, then, in the end, are they satisfied with someone else (who is clearly not a child, despite my personal opinions of the actor portraying said character)? Meanwhile, other seemingly important details about mythology and baby teeth are brought up but never explored or paid much attention to. It all feels a bit made-up-as-we-go-along.

Is it bad that the only thing going through my head is scientology jokes when I see this because Katie Holmes involvement in the film?!

This type of “improvised”-feeling storytelling is fine for kids’ movies – that’s how kids play, that’s how kids tell stories, that’s how kids’ imaginations work. Also fittingly for a kids’ movie (at least storywise), both the movie and young Bailee Madison succeed in showing the world from a kid’s point of view: how scary and exciting it is to explore a new house (especially one as big and with as many dark corners as this one); the frustration of no one listening to you, believing you, taking anything you say seriously just because you’re the baby and they’re all so much smarter and wiser. Also fittingly, the portrayal of the adult figures are rather one note: Guy Pearce in a very Wahlbergesque performance as the trying-to-make-sense-of-it-all father and Katie Holmes as the sympathetic, if rather wooden (as always), not-evil-stepmother. Again, all fine for a kids’ movie; however, if there exists a way to have it both ways (childlike storytelling vs. hard-R terror and violence), Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark can’t find it.

Though written and directed by first timer Troy Nixey, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is very much being sold as producer Guillermo Del Toro’s movie (as was done with J.A. Bayona’s far superior movie The Orphanage from 2007), and to be fair the style and subject matter certainly do reflect Del Toro’s interests and will satisfy most of his fans in this regard. The movie is based on a tv movie of the same name from 1973 which Del Toro has said is the most frightening thing he’s ever seen, and was what first inspired him to get into the fantastical horror-ish movies for which he is best known. Unfortunately, I left the theatre more curious about the original than caring about the remake.


Posted on September 1, 2011, in Film Review and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Nice review. I enjoyed this movie more than you (I left my thinking cap at the door); the scary or “jump-in-your-seat” scenes were setup and executed well, especially for a first-time director. Back to your rule-busting flaws, I thought they revealed the monsters too early in the film and would have done better if kept in the dark a little longer. What do you think?

  2. I’m a real less-is-more guy, ESPECIALLY when it comes to horror, so yes, they definitely could have gotten a bit more mileage by keeping the little monkeys under wraps for longer than they did. I doubt it would have saved the movie (for me), though.

    That said, though, the effects were awesome.

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