Film Review: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)
Go into this horror movie with limited expectations and you will be entertained, otherwise be ready to sit through a disappointing and frustrating horror movie. The first way to lower your anticipation is to know that Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labryinth) did NOT direct Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011); he simply co-wrote the screenplay and served as a producer on the film. His style seeps through the film at times, but it was not enough to save it from overall mediocrity and downright stupidity at times. The film is littered with clichés and the story is far from original, employing elements from classic horror movies like The Shining (1980) and Psycho (1960) but to much, much less success. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark offers some palpable atmospheric tension in parts, but it lacks the creativity and terror necessary to justify a theater viewing let alone a remake of the 1973 made-for-TV movie of the same name.
The film begins with an historical prologue where Emerson Blackwood, a noted artist and biologist, lures his maid into the creepy basement and gruesomely kills her in order to appease the gremlin-like creatures that have taken his son. However, they remain unsatisfied and take him into the depths as well. Then the film cuts to contemporary society where young Sally Hirst, a loner, depressed girl, moves into Blackwood Manor with her workaholic father Alex and his girlfriend Kim. After that, the haunted house, kid-is-terrified routine kicks in as Sally quickly becomes a victim of the ancient creatures games and hunger while the estranged father is oblivious and uncaring.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has a creepy and imaginatively grisly opening scene, but it quickly squanders the potential with weak characters that viewers will have a hard time relating to or sympathizing with, to say the least. Even the movie’s references to great horror movies seem like poor rip-offs rather than eloquent admirable homages. For instance, it contains a “scary” bathroom/shower scene with an almost shot-for-shot recreation of the one in Psycho, but the overexposure of the creatures weakens the imagination; plus, Sally could have done one thing to make it stop- turn on the light. Another obvious reference includes the creepy voices of the “house” calling out to Sally to “come and play with us” and be friends with them, much like in The Shining, but it is nowhere near as effective here. The film has some intense atmospheric moments but is poorly executed with overused CGI, showing the creatures too much, unoriginality and annoying choices the characters make.
The frustratingly foolish characters are the movie’s most egregious problem. They are complete clichéd caricatures so often found in horror movies. The father never really believes his daughter, perhaps until the real climax. The daughter must really be depressed or insane to want to “play” or be friends with creepy-sounding voices found in dark basements. The nice stepmother looking to get approval from her stepdaughter is little more than a plot device for the audience; if the Kim character had been further developed, the film’s emotional impact would have been genuine. Instead, the main characters irritatingly must keep the plot going forward with their foolish actions. The worst display of this, though, is one character’s run-in with the creatures that leads to getting stabbed about twenty times with a pair of scissors sticking out of his shoulder yet everyone calls it an accident. Furthermore, the adults remain calm even after one of the creatures is killed and presumably photographed several times; this is a huge plot hole.
Audiences should be respected and not insulted. They would like to see a horror movie where when kids, teens or young adults come to middle-aged adults with fears and news of ghosts, monsters, etc., the adults actually believe them. You cannot say in this day and age (if the movie is set in modern times) that those “people” have not seen scary movies or heard enough spooky stories in their lives to completely shut off any possibility of horrifying perhaps supernatural events. They might be hesitant at first but to completely refuse the possibility is as far-fetched as the plots themselves; every modern adult has at least some belief in the supernatural or are aware of countless stories/shows enough to respect the idea somewhat, especially when things start to go awry in their lives.
Even the solid main cast cannot save it from oblivion. The typically great Guy Pearce misses the mark here, though his character Alex Hirst is probably the weakest written. Katie Holmes has a polarizing past, but she can still be a serviceable actress. However, like Pearce, her character Kim is poorly conceived so she had little chance to make it work. Young Bailee Madison, who actually has a considerable filmography for her age, is decent as Sally, but her character is not entirely likeable for reasons noted above. The cast members give largely unconvincing performances, coupled with poorly written characters.
Del Toro’s influence is clearly evident, but his writing fails to deliver the kind of goods one has come to accept with his filmmaking pedigree. The story parallels his best work Pan’s Labryinth in a number of ways, but Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark lacks the artistic achievement and emotional impact of that film. For instance, the decision to turn the main character into a young girl (the original featured an adult terrorized by the creatures) who is a lonely yet imaginative girl is very similar to Pan’s, as well as the maze/garden scenes. But the comparisons stop there; this film does not make good on its promises to terrify you. The teaser trailer in which Sally crawls through the bed-sheets is the scariest part perhaps, and horribly oversells the movie. Del Toro still is an extremely talented filmmaker with good projects ahead of him, but you have to wonder how this movie would have turned out if he actually directed it (this is director Troy Nixey’s first feature film).
In sum, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a mediocre horror flick that, like its original, would be better suited to television. Its frustrating characters are typical of those found on cheap SyFy-made movies. The creepy atmosphere becomes overwhelmed by cheap scares and an overexposure of the creatures. Skip this clichéd, unoriginal material until it hits the store shelves, but even then perhaps wait until it is on cable television for a mindless horror movie.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark – 5/10