There is something inherently sinister and primal about the morality and ideas behind producer Guillermo Del Toro's (Pan's Labyrinth, The Devil's Backbone) newest film Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. The title of the film is meant to echo the sentiment of an adult putting a child to sleep with a reassuring and well-worn goodbye. As frightening as the night might be, rest assured there is nothing there.
However, in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark there is something there and not just some"thing" but some"things." The success of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark lies in whether or not the film can successfully transport the audience back to their childhood; back to a time where the unsympathetic world of adulthood couldn't understand the fears of a child.
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark started its life as a 1973 made-for-television movie that is described by Guillermo Del Toro as "the scariest movie he has ever seen." Del Toro has been obsessed with updating the film, so much so that he has co-produced and co-written the film. The film also marks the debut of new director Troy Nixey, although the handiwork of Guillermo is easily identifiable.
After a frightening prologue, the film introduces Sally (Bailee Madison, Brothers) and her father, Alex (Guy Pearce), and his young girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes). Alex, an architect, and Kim, an interior designer, are working on restoring the insidious Blackwood Manor and have to take in Sally now that her mother has "given her away."
Years ago, eccentric artist and biologist Emerson Blackwood and his son mysteriously disappeared inside the house, leaving very little details to their fate. When the trio of protagonists discover a secret door to the hidden basement of the house, young Sally begins to hear voices of creatures that promise to be her friends. These creatures quickly reveal their real intentions; they collect children's teeth and won't be satisfied until they've gotten Sally's.
The story of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark treads on some well-worn grounds, as it is essentially another haunted house movie. The idea isn't exactly new to Del Toro either, with his credit as producer on the amazing The Orphanage. So it is no surprise that Del Toro and Nixey nail the style right on the head.
Every single shot in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark oozes creative horror imagery that rockets forward at an incredible pace. Leaves blow, the sky rains flower petals, and candles flicker in that ever-so-ominous way. Nixey's mastery over the camera and how it moves creates an other-worldy, voyeuristic presence. No matter the subject, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark's cinematography is beautiful and impeccably controlled.
This is incredibly important to the storytelling, as the demonic creatures in the film are uncontrollably afraid of the light, which is in short supply in the film. As a viewer, the film leaves one searching for any light as an escape from the terror that darkness implies.
With all this beautiful design and masterful visual direction, why isn't Don't Be Afraid of the Dark scary?
The build-up to the reveal of the creatures is handled well, slowly giving the audience more details on the creatures design: a silhouette here, a fang there. However, once the creatures stand revealed, the film stops evolving and continues to repeat the same formula over and over again. The lights go out, creatures attack, and the lights come back on again. What is even more infuriating is that no one believes Sally's plight, despite the mountain of evidence to substantiate her claims.
The other problem, one found in Del Toro's other critically beloved film Pan's Labyrinth, is the inconsistency in the character of Sally. For a child, Sally is way too brave in the face of some truly horrifying sights and yet when in a perilous situation she all but freezes up. After awhile, it becomes frustrating to see the same characters react the same way to the same situations over and over again. It is unfortunate because all the actors do the best they can with the material, but the script gives them no ability to develop as characters, rendering them dull and ineffective.
Despite its incredible production value and masterful visual direction, it is hard to recommend Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. The film never completely allows the audience to identify with its shapeless protagonist, who depending on the situation is either the bravest child or the worst communicator the world has ever seen.
In horror films, terror comes from the unknowable; just as a child fears the mystery of the dark. However, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark allows its audience to be a step ahead of the plot while leaving its characters about a half-dozen steps behind, leading to an incredible sense of frustration and a lack of suspense.
|1.5 / 4 Reels|