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Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

August 27, 2011
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Didn’t you ever think the whole tooth fairy thing was at least a little bit creepy?
I mean, something is coming into your very room while you’re at your most vulnerable, and it’s messing around right behind your head. Not to even start thinking about why it would even value the teeth in the first place. Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins evidently think so, since they rewrote an old made-for-TV horror movie called Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. And boy, does first-time director Troy Nixey shoot the hell out of it.

Sally Hirst (Bailee Madison) flies solo from Los Angeles to Rhode Island to join her father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes). He’s an architect, she’s an interior designer, and they’re fixing up a beautiful old manor out in the countryside together. But Kim is naturally nervous about the prospect of motherly duties, and Sally isn’t too thrilled about the situation either. Oh yes, and the place is haunted or something.

There aren’t really any other kids around, so Sally is left to explore on her own. Wandering through a hedge maze she finds a hidden window in the ground — the only sign of a sealed-off basement, which Alex somehow missed in his restorations. This basement contains a furnace grate, which — we are told in a prologue — leads to a cave inhabited by some… things… which kidnap children and hold them for ransom in the form of baby teeth. And now of course they’re out for Sally.

Del Toro’s fingerprints are all over this film. Nixey may have been the director, but he learned a lot from del Toro’s presence as a producer. Nixey’s career as a comic book artist shows through in his eye for framing, especially in some of the gorgeously wide, overhead shots, but he clearly picked up his sweeping, smooth Steadicam shots from del Toro’s style. Del Toro and Robbins click beautifully as screenwriters. The fantastical style from Pan’s Labyrinth comes through, and it’s matched by the creepy atmosphere. If even part of this came from or rubbed off on Robbins, then his script for next year’s At the Mountains of Madness will more than live up to its Lovecraftian pedigree.

In fact, “Lovecraftian” would be more than appropriate as a description here. We have an ancient, hidden evil sealed away in an old, out of the way New England location, with fantastically creepy monsters threatening ordinary, unsuspecting people.

Holmes and Pearce are good enough, but they’re not exactly developed as characters. Kim’s arc as a woman who’s on the fence about raising kids but whose natural mothering instincts eventually assert themselves is more than a little clichéed, but what would a horror film be without some reductionistic societal roles?

Madison, though, is a little harder to pin down. It’s clearly more of del Toro’s handiwork to use a young girl in this position, and that’s a great move. But Madison herself is erratic. I was hoping for a decisive second chance after her annoying performance in Just Go With It — was she an amateurish aspiring child actress, or just playing that part? She certainly screams and emotes well in the second half of the movie, but most of her work in the first half looks mechanical and practiced; “this is how I show I don’t like her”, “this is how I show I’m upset”. Judgement must be delayed again.

But really this is not a film that takes great acting. It takes a spooky environment, engaging visuals, and well-timed scares. And that’s exactly what Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has to offer.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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