A lot of writers and directors have trademarks. Stephen King has little kids with mental disabilities and psychic powers, M. Night Shyamalan has increasingly mediocre “tweests,” Michael Bay has explosions, and Guillermo del Toro has his little brunette girls. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is certainly no exception. Its star, Bailee Madison (of Just Go With It fame), is absolutely a little brunette girl.
Ever since the first time I saw the trailer, before it got shelved and before Miramax picked it up, I’ve been anxiously awaiting this film. I love creepy stuff, and del Toro is pretty great at that. The teaser was expertly crafted, showing just enough to get you hooked (a girl exploring the vast world of Under-the-Sheets) and then JUMP SCARE! They may be cheap, but they’re effective. Either way, I was hooked. Add to that my girlfriend’s nigh-obsession with the man and his oeuvre, and the stage was to be set for Don’t Be Afraid to join Insidious as one of my favorite movies of the year. Hit the jump to find out whether or not it succeeded.
Spoiler alert: It didn’t.
Not only was Dalin (my girlfriend, for those of you just joining us) stuck at home nursing a sore throat, but the movie was simply standard fare. I won’t get into why just yet, because then why would you need to read the rest of my review? Let’s just say Insidious is still safe and sound as my personal favorite horror film of the year.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark tells the story of little brunette girl Sally Hirst. She is sent to live with her architect father (Guy Pearce) and his new interior designer girlfriend (Katie Holmes) because her mother is clearly too busy to do it herself. Being a little brunette girl abandoned by her mother, Sally is kind of a stand-offish brat and Kim (the girlfriend) does her damnedest to win the girl over to little success. It would be your standard Lifetime movie if it weren’t for the fact that these little goblin things weren’t trying to abduct Sally to turn her into one of them (or something?).
First off, the movie is super polished. It’s very pretty to look at, Blackwood Manor is foreboding, and the cinematography is great. Del Toro (who co-wrote and produced, but didn’t direct) has a pretty distinct style that is readily apparent here, and it works. Dark halls, a dungeon-like basement, and even the converted fountain/koi pond add to the mystique of this place.
If you’ve ever seen a film the del Toro has been involved with, you know he loves his unique creatures. Pan’s Labyrinth, the Hellboy films, even Cronos, all bear distinct and memorable supernatural beings. The things in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark are small, agile, and ill-defined. They can speak our language, wield our silverware and office supplies, and suffer from lack of any real development. A lot of the time, I’m all for not talking it to death, but telling us they’ve been around since the Stone Age is literally the bare minimum. The only other information to really be gleaned from the film is that they stab handymen with half a pair of scissors, hate light, and like to hiss “Sally.” Why do they want teeth? Does it matter? I don’t even know.
To be fair, they are 100% smarter than the human characters. I guess it’s not really Sally’s fault her father won’t listen to her. After all, she is a little brunette girl. But seriously, once stuff starts to hit the fan, and these people are adamant about staying in the house, they kind of deserve everything they get. Your handyman was almost murdered, your daughter is scared to death, and all you can talk about it making sure the house is ready to be on the front of a magazine? What a maroon. Yes, smarter characters would’ve made for a less interesting movie, but still, really? And the ending. Oh my God, the ending. What was an alright movie did a heel turn and my jaw was on the floor. I won’t spoil things for you, but it just makes Pearce’s character look like an even bigger dickhead, and the epilogue was even more frustrating thanks to the lack of information we’re given. WHAT’S AT THE BOTTOM OF THE TUNNEL, DEL TORO? My friend Izzy put it best: “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark should have been titled Get the Fuck Out The House.”
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is like a vapid sorority girl: pretty to look at, a few redeeming qualities, but confused and in the end, not the kind of girl you bring home to your parents. The film busted its creepy nut in the first ten minutes with an absolutely sensational prologue (and even had really cool opening credits) and then for the rest of the film we’re stuck with Katie Holmes trying her hardest not to tell her boyfriend that Scientology frowns on putting your child on ADD medication, Guy Pearce being a bad dad, Bailee Madison being a little brunette girl with terrible social skills, and handymen being stabbed with scissors. Am I upset I saw this movie over Columbiana or My Idiot Brother? No, but that’s because I’m going to see those movies also.
Overall Score: 5.50 – Bad. (5s are movies that either failed at reaching the goals it set out to do, or didn’t set out to do anything special and still had many flaws. Some will enjoy 5s, but unless you’re a fan of this genre, you shouldn’t see it, and might not even want to rent it.)
Matthew Razak: 4.50 – Terrible. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark suffers from wildly shifting tones, idiotic characters and monsters that are handled in such a way that they remind you more of the humorous gremlins from Gremlins than anything you would actually fear when the lights go out. Director Troy Nixey actually shows some skill with creating atmosphere and scares, but he mishandles his cast and the story so badly that most of the good stuff he does gets buried under the audiences inability not to laugh at the supposedly scary creatures. Decisions to make the creatures bicker humorously amongst themselves and to make the humans act in completely illogical ways ruin any suspense or terror the film builds up. There’s scary to be found in this premise, but there’s none to found in the film itself.