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Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
Directed by Troy Nixey
Screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins
Bailee Madison as Sally
Katie Holmes as Kim
Guy Pearce as Alex
How long is Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark? 99 minutes.
What is Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark rated? “R” for violence and terror.
Right Ingredients, Wrong Temperature
Sally has problems. Being passed off between her worthless parents has put her on an anti-depression med at age eight. She has been sent to a scary old house, to live with her dad and his new girlfriend (architect and interior designer) while they restore the old homestead to sell it. If there is one thing this girl needs, it is a whimsical adventure. And she will soon get one, though she may regret it later.
Little does she know, for example, that many years ago in the basement of the house, a man knocked out a lady’s teeth with a chisel to appease something hideous living in a tunnel under the house. Don’t worry. This is the first scene of the film, which primes one to expect much more out of the remaining story. But no, things plod along for a while after this, as Sally explores the grounds of the house to avoid her career-focused dad (Guy Pearce) and her on-deck stepmom (Katie Holmes). She manages to stumble upon the bricked-up basement, which the groundskeeper (Jack Thompson of Breaker Morant fame) warns the family away from in the strongest terms. Obviously he knows something sinister. Nobody listens, of course, least of all Sally, and soon she finds herself tormented by a hive of small, wicked creatures who want only one thing… Sally.
Everything seems right about the setup. In a refreshing change from the norm, Sally is the kind of character who does not falter at reaching or peering into dark places. She seems to be intelligent and adventurous, never giving a thought to the possibility of monsters. This causes us much anxiety on her behalf, as we know something is lurking before she does. And when she does find out, all the natural fears of childhood come crashing in on her. Something that can only exist in the dark wants to take her away, and if necessary will drive her insane to do it. So what went wrong?
To begin with, NOT DARK ENOUGH. Even in the scenes where there is supposedly only one practical light source, the incidental lighting is sufficient for us to make out a surprising level of detail. The flashlight never runs out of batteries. The child is seldom alone for more than a few minutes to wallow in mortal fear. Too many scenes take place in daylight. Shall I go on? The movie is too bright in general, and in this way it negates its own premise. There is not one moment of total, complete, and utter darkness, and that is unforgivable.
A little silence would help, also. Everyone – and everything – talks too much in this movie. Guy Pearce incessantly reminds us that his career is on the line, and that his daughter’s “emotional problems” could not have come along at a worse time. His is the most egregious example of how on-the-nose everyone’s motivations are (and on an unrelated note, his hair is absolutely awful). Edging him out are the malevolent creatures, who gibber constantly in whispers about what they want… mostly “children’s teeth.” It is supposed to be creepy, but after five minutes it becomes silly.
None of the human characters have any secondary eccentricities. The harried father is simply worried more about his career than his child. The prospective stepmother feels a growing concern for the neglected little girl, despite her reluctance about being a parent. The child is curious and imaginative, but suffers from a grownup-sized case of clinical depression. These characters have no further edge to temper their bland 21st century problems, and make their dysfunctionality interesting to watch.
If only the director had found a way to stretch the feeling of the film’s final twenty minutes into the final hour or so, and scrapped large chunks of what led up to it. Being alone in the dark with tiny, nasty creatures is the promise of Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, and it underdelivers. Director Troy Nixey does not interweave fantastic elements with weighty family drama in such compelling ways as del Toro did in Pan’s Labyrinth. Instead, we find ourselves impatient for night to fall, and for the dysfunctional family to quit harping on their problems and get back into peril.
The excessive dialogue, including a local librarian’s explanation of what exactly the creatures are, explains away every bit of mystery about the horrors dwelling under the house. Since the prologue achieved this goal before the opening titles even started, most of the script as written is redundant. As we re-discover what we saw in the beginning (in a much more horrifying) scenario, a nagging little voice cries, “We know! We know!” And what we do not know does not always need to be fully told.
More or less by its own admission, the film is an attempt to revive the dark fiction styles of Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, whose work is indeed influential on modern horror. It is nice to see someone harping on less celebrated authors of the weird than H. P. Lovecraft for once. However, littering your script with signposts and needless exposition rather works against the purpose. Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark is, at best, condensed and processed Machen for not very bright people.
A word about the critters – sorry, the fairies. They do a pretty good job of being a different kind of movie monster. Swarming people with sharp things – scissor blades, razors, screwdrivers and such – they manage to be quite menacing at key moments. However, their constant CGI skittering and unceasing chatter brings to mind an unwelcome comparison. Ever since the popularization of Andy Serkis as Gollum, in Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings, audiences will find it hard to think of anything else when confronted with these things. Perhaps that will go away in time, but it is quite distracting for now.
It is nice, however, to see Katie Holmes get a nice role. Her character has a clear arc from reluctant stepfigure to protective mother, complete with the prospect of tragic sacrifice. Her performance cements the climactic confrontation as the only really satisfying part of the film.
With an old house, dark ancient creatures, and a sensitive but neglected child at its disposal, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark has the time-tested potential to be pants-peeing scary from start to finish. It scarcely manages to achieve that once, as it constantly takes breaks from any sustained sense of dread to remind us how unhappy little Sally’s life is. The same story could have been conveyed with ten times more impact, had only about ten percent of the dialogue made it into the script. Efficiency is so important, especially in horror, where a viewer’s patience is so limited. Had the director trusted the intelligence of his audience just a bit more, he would have had a rare opportunity to scare the everlasting hell out of them.