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Movie Review: Nothing to be "Afraid" of
DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (2011)
Director: Troy Nixey
Cast: Guy Pearce, Katie Holmes, Bailee Madison, Julia Blake, Jack Thompson
A slight remake of a 1973 TV movie, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a film that is as hard to hate as it is to embrace. The movie is presented by Guillermo Del Toro, and one can't help but wonder what sort of strange, enchanting, and frightening film might have been made had the camera been guided by his eye. Instead, the directing reigns fell to newcomer Troy Nixey, and while he manages to imbue the film with an unquestionably beautiful Gothic visual flourish, the tone he chooses to approach the material with is surprisingly...flat. As lovely as the look of the film is, there's a workman-like feel to the movie that prevents one from fully embracing it. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is sporadically creepy but never scary, mildly intriguing but never fully engaging. It's one of the most frustratingly unspectacular films I've seen in many a moon.
The best scene is easily the very first, a gut-wrenchingly gruesome prologue set in the 1800s that establishes the house's terrifying history. We then cut to present day Rhode Island, where 9-year old Sally (Bailee Madison) is sent to live with her father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new interior decorator girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) as they renovate the historic Blackwood Estate. Shortly upon her arrival, Sally begins hearing voices coming from the air vents, telling her that they'll be her friend if she sets them free from their prison in a sealed-up ash dump in the basement. At first she's convinced, but she soon learns that the voices belong to evil little gremlins who live by feasting off the teeth of children. Of course, her father doesn't want to believe her (the men in these films are always initially skeptical) and Kim is more sensitive to her feelings. You know the drill.
The elements that work best in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark are the ones that mix terror with childhood myth. There's a scene involving an electronic teddy bear that says “I love you” which is creepily effective, as is the scene where Sally has her first horrifying encounter with a creature lurking under her bedsheets. There seems to be a fascinating parable at work here about the horrors that motivate childhood myth, but it's never as developed as you would like it to be. There are moments that shine, and others that receive only scant attention (the movie's attempts to tie the creatures with the tooth fairy myth fall especially flat). The movie then goes completely off the rails during its thunderously stupid climax, which features too many shots of the creatures, Alex and Kim foolishly leaving young Sally zonked out on medication in her dark room alone, and a cringe inducing scene of violence that feels all wrong for the film. It seems like much of what happens in the climax would've easily been avoided had any of the characters had so much as an inkling of common sense, but they wonder off alone far too often, and everyone knows nothing good ever comes of that.
I know I'm making it sound like I hated this film, but the truth is I have a lot of admiration for it. I love horror movies set in scary mansions, and I love the conventions that usually come with them. I love scenes where the lead begins investigating the house's terrible past at a local library, and I love it when the crotchy old caretaker begins spouting his obligatory portents of doom. I love scenes where characters hear whispering voices where there shouldn't be any, and I love the atmosphere of these Gothic mansions whenever a dark and stormy night strikes. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark has all of these elements, and I did smile during those scenes. Yet the most memorable scene in the whole film comes early on, where Sally discovers the house's maze like garden for the first time. It's a beautiful and captivating scene in a movie that is seriously lacking in them.
The performances are hit and miss, with little Bailee Madison turning in the most layered and convincing performance in the entire film. Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes, on the other hand, fare less well. They're both stuck playing stereotypical genre types (everyone is, actually), and both of them treat their roles as though they weren't worth making an effort. Because the little girl comes across as the only developed character in the whole film, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark doesn't have the rooting interest it needs to keep us involved. We need to care about all of the characters, not just the youngest one. With that being said, it's amazing that Don't Be Afraid of the Dark isn't any worse than it is. The visuals, some effective jolts, and little Madison manage to keep the material barely afloat. However, as promising and chilling as the trailers were, “barely staying afloat” just isn't enough.
Final Grade: ** 1/2 (out of ****)