Once upon a time, a young boy named Guillermo del Toro was scared shitless by a 1973 made-for-television movie; that boy, now a man, has gone on to co-produce and co-write a screenplay for that movie’s remake, which contains several of his own touches. While neophyte Troy Nixey directs, it’s unmistakably a picture that del Toro has been fondling for much too long in his head. That’s both good and bad, by the way.
As a remake, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark bears much resemblance to the original in its story structure yet shifts the focus away from an adult female protagonist, or one half of a couple, living in a house besieged by supernatural creatures. Instead, the new version focuses upon a young child named Sally (Bailee Madison), who is the unfortunate target of the same raspy-voiced beings, who reside in the darkest depths of her new home and seek to recruit her for their own purposes. Sally is particularly vulnerable to entertaining the idea of new supernatural “friends” because she’s feeling quite abandoned by her mother, who apparently has better things to do than raise a child since she indiscriminately sends her daughter to live with her architect father, Alex (Guy Pearce). Sally’s discomfort in her new situation isn’t helped much by the presence of Alex’s young, interior designer girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes). For their part, the grownups are largely focused upon renovating an old Rhode Island mansion, Blackwood Manor, where the three of them also take up residence.
Although Sally is a pretty depressed child, she still possesses a childlike sense of wonder and soon sets about exploring her new surroundings. When she takes an interest in the basement of the home, she is quickly warned away by the groundskeeper, Harris (Jack Thompson), who obviously knows more about the home than its current owners do. His role is rather confusing and doesn’t make much sense given the context of the remake’s modified story. Another bizarre missing loop from the story is that these creatures are clearly intent upon taking a life (any life) to boost their numbers, yet they never bothered terrorizing either Alex or Kim while they lived there alone and are only spurred into action by the appearance of Sally. While this is unquestionably a plot furthering device to draw the movie out to feature length, it also enhances the anxiety the audience feels on behalf of Sally when the adults refuse to entertain outlandish, monster-oriented stories seriously, especially when they’re coming from an already emotionally-disturbed child. In addition, it also bolsters the overall anti-psychiatry message of this remake, which is an aspect of the movie that I find rather odd and self-serving, but I’ll leave it at that.
The screenplay of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a bit rusty, particularly in the middle where an over-enthusiastic librarian provides far too much exposition for any audience members who possess more than two brain cells rubbing together at any given moment. Where the film does excel, however, is in setting up a chilling atmosphere, which is key here and where del Toro’s touch is most apparent, along with the fact that he focuses so heavily on his child protagonist’s psyche as she is lured into a spooky situation that turns into more than she could possibly handle. And it is a creepy movie for, say, the first sixty minutes or so, during which the creatures do their best to further alienate Sally from her adult counterparts. There’s also a number of moments that do genuinely create palpable tension, such as when the creatures lurk and skitter throughout the home and, most memorably, during a scene when the maid draws a bath for Sally. Yet most of this effect is destroyed when the creatures are fully revealed past the point of glowing eyes. Unfortunately, their CGI-rendered physicality isn’t terribly impressive; to be honest, they look like the ridiculous hellspawn of Critters and some very indiscriminate monkeys. It’s a difficult challenge, really, to keep monsters scary when it comes time for the big reveal. As we’re all quite aware, most fear resides within the power of the unknown, and it’s a shame that del Toro and company couldn’t sustain it throughout the whole of the movie.
Ultimately, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark contains a a respectful number of suspenseful moments, but it won’t keep you up at night. And if you’re like me, a bit of sleeplessness is actually a good reason to watch a horror movie. This is also an R-rated film, so there is some gore and a fair amount of violence that far outweighs that of its television predecessor. Further, it truly pains me to break the news that, as far as the cast goes, Guy Pearce is the weakest link. Bailey Madison is a good little thespian, and it will be interesting to see if she continues to flourish as she grows, but Pearce is just horrible and quite unlike himself here. In fact, even Katie Holmes outacts him in this movie, which is saying a lot, and it’s definitely not saying anything good. If you know what I mean. And I think you do.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at Celebitchy.