Of all the movies promoted at Comic-Con 2010, I was the most surprised by Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. With the veteran hand of Guillermo del Toro writing and producing, and first time director Troy Nixey at the helm, it looked moody, atmospheric, and – most importantly for a horror film – downright scary. They showed us the opening scene, and I was captivated by what we saw; excellent production design, a frightening concept, and some well-placed sound effects worked wonders on that audience, and had me leaving the convention anticipating the film’s release. So it brings me no pleasure to report discouraging news: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a lifeless, boring “horror” story almost completely devoid of scary moments. For me, it’s the biggest theatrical disappointment of 2011 so far.
The story is simple enough: young Sally (Bailee Madison) is sent to Rhode Island to live with her father (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes). They all live in a spooky old mansion they’re renovating; it once belonged to an enigmatic artist named Emerson Blackwood who dies at the hands of little demon/fairy/mythical figures in the aforementioned prologue. The creatures demand the price of one human life every time they surface, and their diet consists solely of children’s teeth. When Sally discovers the basement where they live, they spend the entire movie trying to convince her to come “play” with them.
Sally’s a child of divorce, and an annoying one at that: she sulks around a lot doing typical divorced child things – being ice cold to dad’s new girlfriend, wandering off by herself, you get the picture. She’s intrigued by the creepy whispers she hears calling her name, and she’s so desperate for attention that she repeatedly sneaks off to meet the creatures, ignoring the orders of her workaholic father (never seen THAT character before). Bailee Madison has some good years ahead of her on the silver screen, but this is not a breakout performance from her. [I’d guess she was cast due to her striking resemblance to Katie Holmes (it’s uncanny, really), but that makes no sense in the context of the movie, since Holmes’ character isn’t her mother.] Sally does so many stupid things – all typical haunted house movie stuff – that I couldn’t root for her. By the end, I was secretly hoping she’d die, just so the message of the movie would be one guarding against stupidity.
It’s safe to say one of the most important elements in any film bearing Guillermo del Toro’s name is creature design. In Blade II, the Hellboy franchise, and his most critically acclaimed movie, Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro has shown an affinity (and affection) for crafting interesting creatures that play important parts in the stories he tells. In Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, they were nothing more than miniature hunchback people with small fangs, less than a foot tall and not threatening in any convincing way. It would take very little effort to simply kick one in the face, and the force of such a kick would surely kill it, but apparently that concept never enters the mind of anyone in the film. The mythology of these creatures (traditionally, one of del Toro’s strengths) is wildly inconsistent in this movie, another one of the film’s many let-downs. The little things whine about how it hurts them to be in the light – occasionally they’ll scream in pain when someone shines a flashlight on them – but late in the movie there’s a scene in which a creature wanders through a brightly lit dinner party with no ill side effects, and yet another scene in which someone shines a light directly on one and it just scowls and growls without running away.
No one could ever call Guillermo del Toro lazy – he’s one of the busiest people in Hollywood. He’s got more projects in development than anyone else I can think of (except for maybe DiCaprio), and he even spent two years developing The Hobbit before stepping down and letting Peter Jackson take the reins. But Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark seems to be a result of del Toro’s time and attention being stretched too thin. The movie has no pulse, the pacing is terrible, and it’s not actually scary. That last aspect is what I found particularly insulting, considering del Toro’s talks about how the MPAA gave the film an R rating for “pervasive scariness” even though they didn’t have to rely on torture and gore. The MPAA apparently consists of a few hyper-sensitive seven-year-old children, because I doubt anyone from another age group would find this movie so devastatingly frightening that they’d give it an R rating.
Perhaps the biggest flaw of the movie is that almost nothing relevant happens for the majority of the run time. After the opening sequence, nothing happens for a solid hour. Then there’s one jump scare, and nothing happens for a while. There’s even a potentially scary scene in a bathtub, but because these creatures hardly ever do anything worth being scared of, it’s next to impossible to see them as a serious threat. That’s the main reason this movie is the biggest disappointment of the year: squandered potential. With the talent involved here, this should have been a home run. But a lazy script and mediocre direction result in a movie that just doesn’t sustain interest. Until next time…