Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (United States/Australia/Mexico, 2010)August 25, 2011
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, a re-make of the 1973 made-for-TV movie of the same name, is a haunted house movie whose success lies in the careful manner freshman director Troy Nixey steeps everything in a surfeit of atmosphere. It overflows. It suffuses every frame. It seeps off the screen and into the auditorium. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark needs no "boo!" moments; its harrowing approach makes the production one long exercise in building tension. The movie is deliciously creepy even if it does exhibit some issues that keep it from being a top-notch example of "things that go bump in the night" horror.
The movie opens with a scene set in the 1800s, then quickly flashes forward to the present day. Unmarried couple Alex (Guy Pearce) and Kim (Katie Holmes) are welcoming Alex's young daughter, Sally (Bailee Madison), to the New England mansion they are renovating. Sally, a lonely and possibly clinically depressed girl, is less-than-thrilled about the shock to her life that forces her to spend her days in a gloomy old house with a workaholic father. Her explorations of the grounds uncover a hidden cellar. The taciturn caretaker (Jack Thompson) urges the current owners to keep it sealed. However, excited by the discovery, Alex opens up the room and Sally is drawn to the musty, dusty, dimly-lit place. But this is not some benign underground chamber - there are tiny creatures that live behind the vent to an ash pit and when Sally inadvertently releases them, she becomes stalked and terrorized by the monsters she has freed.
The weakest aspect of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is the storyline, which is riddled with holes and implausibilities. This shouldn't come as a surprise, however. Even the best horror films tend to suffer from narrative-related problems. They rely on visceral elements to distract the audience. Indeed, in this case, the viewer's attention is so arrested by the palpable sense of dread that it's easy to overlook many of the most head-scratching questions, not the least of which is why Kim is still using a Polaroid Instamatic (and where she buys the film). Nigel McKeand's teleplay may have been spruced up for the 2010s, but little genuine "updating" has been done. The filmmakers might have been better off making this a period piece rather than attempting to convince us it's taking place in today's tech-savvy world. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark has a slow, deliberate pace which may annoy viewers weaned on the faster, more brutal genre standouts of the slasher generation. That's not to say there isn't gore, but it's carefully targeted and not overused. That gives it impact.
The biggest departure from the original relates to the age of the female protagonist. In the 1973 version, Sally was an adult. Here, she's a girl. The "child in danger" scenario is hated by some because of the way in which it manipulates emotions. But there's no denying that it raises the stakes. It's also worth noting that Guillermo del Toro, who co-wrote the new screenplay, has an affinity for telling stories through the eyes of a young female protagonist - the movie occasionally echoes Pan's Labyrinth in terms not only of perspective but of content. There's also an odd connection to Gremlins when it comes to how the creatures are crafted and portrayed.
Neither Guy Pearce nor Katie Holmes has a lot to do beyond filling ritual stereotypes - the distracted father and the potential stepmother who seeks to bond with her reluctant future daughter. The lion's share of the film's real acting goes to 11-year old Bailee Madison, who is more than equal to the task. Madison's filmography lists an impressive number of credits for one so young, but this is her first bona fide starring role and it's hard to argue against her casting. She is compelling and we find ourselves rooting for Sally. The coupling of Madison's lonely, frightened performance with the weighty sense of atmosphere developed by Nixey and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton provides Don't Be Afraid of the Dark with all the ammunition it needs. This is a flawed yet haunting motion picture whose forceful sense of creepiness is difficult to shake.
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (United States/Australia/Mexico, 2010)
Cast: Guy Pearce, Katie Holmes, Bailee Madison, Jack Thompson
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro & Matthew Robbins, based on the teleplay by Nigel McKeand
Cinematography: Oliver Stapleton
Music: Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders
U.S. Distributor: Filmdistrict Distribution