At The Picture Show
We'll leave the light on for ya
'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark' is an uneasy mix of strong visual ideas and clunky storytelling
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
Director: Troy Nixey
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins, based on a 1973 teleplay by Nigel
Starring: Bailee Madison, Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Jack Thompson, Julia Blake and Garry
Rated R / 1 hour, 39 minutes
Opened August 26, 2011
(out of four)
Your overall enjoyment of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark may depend most of all on your
tolerance for narrative black holes that require characters to think and behave like imbeciles. Me,
I'm still trying to decide on my tolerance level - at least as it pertains to this movie.
There's so much I like about it - the artistry and ornate details of the production design, the
voice work performed for the film's mysterious little monsters, the confidence and vulnerability
of Bailee Madison's lead performance, Guy Pearce's silly hairdo - that I'm reticent to point out
the insulting idiocy with which it gets from point A to point B.
But point it out I must. The film would have us accept that
two parents, having realized with utter certainty that demonic creatures living in their Gothic
fixer-upper are trying to kill their daughter Sally (Madison), will immediately proceed to leave
the girl to her own devices and run around the mansion by herself in the dark.
And then, after danger has been averted yet again, those same parents will put their daughter to
bed, alone, in the dark, while making plans to leave the house once and for all . . . later on that
night. As if the demonic creatures in question will all agree to leave Sally alone for a few hours
to allow the parents time to pack.
If the film were true to its screenplay, the true horror would be having such incompetent and
Having holes in your story is one thing; completely insulting your audience's collective
intelligence is another. It's a curious thing; Guillermo del Toro, credited as a writer and producer
on Don't Be Afraid, is no stranger to childhood trauma, having explored the subject in macabre,
brilliant detail in both The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth. And the conspicuous absence
(or unavailability) of the parents added a specific texture that made the horrors the child
protagonists faced all the more unnerving. Their very isolation was the most foreboding thing of
There's no such sense of solitude or sorrow in Don't Be
Afraid. In fact, grown-ups are all over the place, and most of the time their attention is on Sally.
Except, that is, when they discover she's in real danger, at which point they leave her alone.
Of course, that's simply indicative of the poor development of the parents as a whole. The film
can find nothing more creative for Guy Pearce's character than the old "single dad who pays
more attention to his job than his poor child" chestnut. And the new soon-to-be stepmom, Kim
(Katie Holmes), is given such whiny, borderline emo lines as "I'm only just coming to terms
with my OWN difficult childhood!" Or something like that.
This is the first feature for director Troy Nixey, and he's not without talent. He has an idea of
what he wants, and to a large extent he accomplishes that. He focuses his efforts on atmospherics
over all else (which is why I confess I may be being too harsh on its logical shortcomings).
Nixey knows his haunted-house roots, and he knows that for any haunted-house to work, it has
to be a character all its own. An old Gothic manor can't help but lend any film some added
gravitas, so that's no trick. But Nixey knows how to emphasize its angles and contours, and
chooses specific moments to amplify its internal dimensions, giving the whole place a sense of
foreboding. He extends that feeling to the grounds surrounding the house (shades of both del
Toro's Pan's Labyrinth and, though it probably goes without saying, The Shining).
And perhaps the most impressive visual achievement of all
is the striking artwork on display (credited in the film to the fictional and mysterious "Emerson
Blackwood"), which ends up playing a critical role in the story.
I've mentioned the creatures, and in truth they might be the stars of the film. They've been
unofficial residents in this mansion for years (forever?), have an aversion to light, and seem to
feed on human teeth (or collect them, anyway). They insist, upon introducing themselves to
Sally, that they want to be friends. Call them what you will - goblins, faeries, demons. Whatever
the case, they make for rather rich antagonists. I love the way they're designed, and how they go
from passive-aggressively evil to genuinely brutal, violent and unmerciful.
But as a whole, we too often get the feeling the filmmakers are trying to hold back. Almost every
scene with Holmes or Pearce feels like mere safeguarding - protection against the film's truer,
darker intentions. But this is horror - the darker intentions is where the genre lives.
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