by Steve Habrat
While watching Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, the new horror film from writer/producer Guillermo del Toro and director Troy Nixey, one would swear that the film had some creative input from Goth director Tim Burton. The film relies heavily on its gothic atmosphere and gloomy landscapes to carry what is otherwise a painfully dull horror movie with an utterly monotonous storyline. The film, which was the penned by del Toro and Matthew Robbins, is a repetitive bore that keeps the same formula up for an hour and forty minutes. It’s frustrating, really, because del Toro is much better than this and capable of whipping up some truly original material. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, however, just keeps looping jittery attacks on a peculiar little girl by an army of whispering, hunchback critters that resemble a pack of demonic meerkats. If I were the girl’s father in the movie, I would have had enough of her blubbering and called in the exterminator just to get some peace.
Most horror films that are produced by Hollywood these days have stellar build-ups with a crash-and-burn payoff that nearly sends the whole project up in a fireball. Take a look at the excellent haunted house flick Insidious for example. It was a great horror film that was marred by a quivering, out of place ending. Another prime example is 2008’s The Strangers, which was consistently intimidating all to add up to the biggest “What the fuck?!” ending I had seen in quite some time. It copped out and played things safe. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark does the exact opposite. It has one of the most tedious build-ups that ends in a fifteen minute finale that had me sitting on the edge of my seat and yelling “Oh, shit!”
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is totally devoid of any real scares. The film follows a young girl Sally (Played by Bailee Madison), who is sent by her dingbat mother to live with her workaholic father Alex (Played by Guy Pearce, who for the first time in his career is overacting). Alex is an architect, who is attempting to revitalize his career by fixing up the Blackwood Manor. He is staying there with his girlfriend Kim (Played by a surprisingly good Katie Holmes), who is also aiding in the restoration. Shortly after moving in, Sally discovers a hidden basement while exploring the Shining-esque garden in the backyard. Soon, she starts hearing voices from the basement, which beg to be set free and become friends with her. Unknowingly, she unleashes a dormant army of bloodthirsty pint-sized critters who hate light and scamper the house in search of a life to take. Are you quivering in terror yet?
Director Nixey has a gifted cinematic eye. He gives the whole project a gothic gloss that suits the storyline of the film and actually gives it brief hints of life. I’m sure that Tim Burton is currently out there somewhere just gushing over this film. The major problem here is that the creatures that lurk in Blackwood Manor are about as scary as my puppy. They bang around in the air vents and steal screwdrivers, razors, and more. In one brief, uncanny moment, they attack one of the workers at Blackwood Manor and reduce him to a staggering, bloody mess. I should point out that this is only one of two scenes that actually deliver on the R-rating the film posses. The rest of the time, they shred Kim’s clothing and knock over lamps. They bicker with one another in their hissing voices and beg Sally to “come play with us.” It’s absurd and unintentionally funny at some points. Nixey and del Toro are so anxious to show off the little pests and they constantly give us a good look at them rather than keeping them in their preferred dark. This adds to the disappointment because del Toro can dream up some creatures that surpass anything our imagination can conjure up on it’s own.
Another aspect of this disappointment that surprises me is Pearce, who is a truly gifted actor, does such a poor job here. He must have been bored between projects and playing darts with the stack of scripts he received. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark must have been the bull’s eye. This movie made me want to go home and watch The Proposition, Memento, and The King’s Speech all in a row so I could be reminded how incredible his talent is. Holmes gives a sufficient performance, especially in the final moments of the film. I’ve always found her to be a mediocre talent but she actually takes this one seriously. Bailee Madison, the child star, seems robotic and clearly being coached by the muted director. She delivers her lines in a stiff tone and seems to have only gotten the job because she can scream until your eardrums pop.
If you are a fan of del Toro and want to see everything he touches, I’d say see this film. You won’t be left a changed individual and you will probably be left wishing for greatness like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Otherwise, this is a half-baked horror movie that drags on entirely too long. It won’t leave you pulling the covers over your head at night or sleeping with a nightlight on. The film could have benefitted from a scarier monster at the heart of it and maybe some more emotional depth. It’s a missed opportunity that left me wishing I had stayed at home and watched Insidious again. Is it too much to ask for more than one good horror movie a year? Grade: C-