Well, first off, I suppose we’d better get one thing straight here — Guillermo Del Toro’s name is all over this thing, but he didn’t actually direct it. No, that job fell to newcomer Troy Nixey, who seems capable enough, but whose name is buried under all the Del Toro-hype here. Not that our guy Guillermo was an absentee-air-quote executive producer here or anything — he co-produced it and co-wrote the screenplay (along with Matthew Robbins), but this isn’t some “unique Del Toro vision of horror” or whatever it’s being billed as. That’s because not only was it directed by someone else, the whole thing’s actually a remake to start with, of a rather well-regarded 1973 made-for-TV movie. Do Del Toro had his fair share of involvement, to be sure, but he’s not really the “brains behind the operation,” so to speak — he’s the guy whose name is being prominently displayed in order to get horror fans’ butts into the seats.
And apparently even that sales strategy isn’t working so well, as Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark opened to both middling reviews and middling box office (not to worry on that score — with a budget of “only” $12.5 million it’s almost sure to turn at least a modest profit once, as industry insiders say, “home viewing platforms” are figured into the mix). None of which is to say that’s it’s in any way a bad flick in and of itself — it’s not. It’s just not great, either.
Oh, Nixey does a nice job with the near-Lovecraftian atmospherics and what have you. Old, abandoned, haunted mansion in New England (actually the movie was filmed in Australia, but you’d never know it, so convincing is the illusion) and all that. Impish little demons who live deep beneath the house whisper through the grates at night and only our intrepid pre-teen heroine, Sally (Bailee Madison, who turns in a very nice job but who’s cursed with the most cloyingly pseudo-“precious” name any parents could foist upon a child), who’s been shipped off from LA by a mother doesn’t want her around to live with an architect/massive-project home remodeler dad , Alex(Guy Pearce) who hardly knows her and is trying to find a way to fit her into his new life with his project assistant/girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes, who still hasn’t learned to stop talking out of the side of her mouth) is a solid enough little set-up as far as these things go.
The problem is, it never goes a whole lot further than that. You can fairly well tell right from the start what the fate of most of the characters here is going to be (obligatory handyman and housekeeper included), and even though there are some hair-raising moments here and there along the way as the imps/fairies/whatever-the-fucks make their presence increasingly felt, there’s not one single plot twist to genuinely throw you off your mark or even really keep you on your toes. Most of the “danger” element just comes from the fact that it’s a child who’s put into these harrowing situations rather than an adult, because creatures of this size just aren’t gonna work that well coming after an adult after all, and of course this leads to the whole moral debate of how right it is to even depict a kid in these circumstances in the first place. I think we’ve settle, albeit unofficially, on a societal standard that says it’s okay to put a kid in danger in a movie here and there, but making a child the subject of all the horror and danger in a film, particularly an R-rated film that isn’t supposed to be “connecting” with an audience of kids, might just be pushing things a bit too far.
That seems fair enough to me, and while I’m not morally outraged by anything young Sally is subjected to here, I can understand easily enough why many folks would find the whole exercise to be in pretty poor taste. That being said, as I mentioned previously, the horror elements in this film only really work at all because it’s a kid in danger, since, ankle-high imps threatening an adult would be just plain absurd. So where does that leave us in terms of the whole “is it right to show kids being terrorized in a movie” argument? Probably no further along than where we were before this film.
Which isn’t a bad summation of things vis a vis horror fans in general. After the critical adulation heaped upon Pan’s Labyrinth and, to a lesser extent, the Hellboy films, the name Guillermo Del Toro has become synonymous with imaginative, visually spectacular horror films that push the genre envelope in terms of both form and content and it’s obvious that the studio (in this case, Miramax) hopes splashing his name across this film unapologetically will lead knowledgeable horror fans to conclude that this must be a film that delivers the same kind of wallop, figuratively speaking, and the fact of the matter is that it just plain doesn’t. It’s certainly competent enough in more or less every respect, and again, young Ms. Madison acquits herself most wholeheartedly in the title role and I wish her the very best in the future. But the whole thing feels like a rote technical exercise that delivers all the goods, at least on paper, but lacks the soul of a true revelatory, visionary horror (or, for that matter, any sort of) film. there’s nothing here to complain about (apart from the moral argument touched upon earlier), but there’s nothing to particularly single out for praise, either (superb lead performance notwithstanding).
So there you have it in a nutshell — Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark is hardly a waste of your time or even anything close to it, but it’s nothing new, nothing profound, and nothing exceptional, despite Miramax’s best efforts to lure you into the theater under the pretense that it is. On a rainy miserable day (or evening), it makes for a nice enough distraction, but there’s nothing happening on screen here that will leave anything like a lasting, indelible impression, and it’s almost all head and no heart. It might even scare you once or twice, but 30 minutes after it’s over you won’t remember why.
I am, however, sufficiently curious at this point to track down and see the original. So I guess that’s something.