Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)

Guillermo Del Toro is a living genius. He is the man behind The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth and responsible for ensuring we received The Orphanage and Julia’s Eyes from Spain, as well as bringing my favourite superhero Hellboy to the screen. He has now laid his influential hands on Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, an English language horror film made in Australia and set in America.

Has Del Toro managed to help make another superb horror / supernatural thriller? Kind of.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is enjoyable, amusing, scary, disturbing and surprisingly brutal in places, but it never quite feels like it’s its own film. There are small elements of Drag Me to Hell and Pan’s Labyrinth in it, with touches of Boogeyman and The Others, but it never really has a consistent tone. It is scary, but not quite as scary as it should be. It is a fairytale, but not quite magical enough. It is a family drama, but without enough depth. It is also deeply flawed on a number of irritating levels.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. What’s the film actually about?! Fallen-from-grace architect Alex (Guy Pearce) has bought and refurbished an ancient mansion once owned by the famous artist Blackwood. He lives with his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) and new resident Sally (Bailee Madison), his 11 year old daughter.

On her explorations, young Sally discovers Blackwood’s sealed off basement, which contains an old “ash pit”. From within the pit Sally hears hushed voices, asking to be her friend. They voices turn out to be – initially – mischievous little imps, content with whispering and rushing about, stealing things and cutting up clothes. But these light-shy little creatures gradually turn nastier and we quickly realize they don’t want Sally as a friend, but as a meal…

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is an enjoyable film, with solid performances from Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes and an exceptional turn from youngster Bailee Madison, who provides a very mature performance for an eleven year old. There is also some decent support work from Alan Dale and Jack Thompson, delivering caricatures with surprising quality and depth.

The cinematography is sublime and for his debut feature Troy Nixey does fantastically well with his direction. It feels like Del Toro has stuck his sizeable fingers into every part of it, though, which is no bad thing. It is a beautiful piece to watch, although not quite as terrifying as it could have been – it smacks of missed potential in the terror department.

The creature design in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is also excellent, as they little beasts scuttle about like miniature emaciated trolls, scuttling and climbing with horrifying results. The choice to voice the creatures also worked fantastically well, adding a constant sense of creeping threat and dread to the film.

The script, however, is possibly where the film falls down the most. Character wise scriptwriters Matthew Robbins and Guillermo Del Toro (him again!) jammed in one of my horror movie pet hates – the shit father. Pearce’s Alex accepts his estranged daughter Sally back into his life at a difficult time for him – career wise – and then proceeds to ignore her and all her clear psychological problems. He even gets her a psychiatrist but then never actually seems to care. I hate this in films. Honestly, truly hate it. They use the same method in Paranormal Activity 1 & 2 and Insidious and it’s becoming an irritating trend in horror – strong-willed women who believe in the spiritual world and terrible-fathers who are blitheringly stubborn about the genuine hell their family is going through. It makes me sad to be a man.

Anyhow, it’s not just shitty-father syndrome that bugged me about the scripting – it was the looseness of it. Things are mentioned which we presume are important but then we never see them again – photocopies of paintings, photographic proof (PROOF!) and corpses of the evil little monsters (MORE PROOF!) – and it feels the film was much longer then badly cut or simply not tightly written enough.

This scripting failure also relates to the characters actions – and inaction – which are incredibly frustrating; Katie Holmes is told explicitly to GET THE GIRL OUT OF THE HOUSE and then pops to a library to do a spot of research! A library is completely destroyed and no one really questions it. Katie Holmes packs the little girl’s bag, determined to leave the horror house and then proceeds to drop the idea when something even worse happens! These are small irritations, but they really began to affect my enjoyment of the movie.

Enough negativity!

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a decent film. It works on a number of levels despite never having a consistent tone, and it appears to be a children’s fairy tale for the over fifteens (!). With all round decent performances – and an exceptional one from Bailee Madison – and containing some solid scares, moments of brutality and levity, it’s an enjoyable watch. Not as good as it could be, but it’s certainly worth viewing when it eventually comes out on DVD / Blu Ray. Solid if uninspiring work.

Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

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