Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (Review)

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is something of a mixed bag that focuses too much on the creatures and is somewhat scary and tense, but not nearly as much as the hype built it up to be.

Guillermo del Toro’s horror remake Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has kind of an interesting story behind it.  When making the film, producer del Toro and director Troy Nixey had the intention of releasing the film as a PG-13 horror flick.  When they submitted it the the MPAA, the film was returned to them branded with the R rating.  Del Toro asked the MPAA what cuts he could make to the film to make it PG-13, and the MPAA basically told him that there was no need to ruin a perfectly scary movie with cuts.  So, the movie was released rated R.  Hype stories like this can be a lot of fun, as they build anticipation for the movie, and in this case, prompt curiosity into what exactly could be so scary about this movie that was made with minimal gore and no swearing.  Unfortunately, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, while entertaining, doesn’t deliver on what the early rumors said, and fails to live up to the high bar set by the hype machine.

The movie loosely follows the plot of the 1970s television movie, that being a couple (Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes) moving into an old mansion and being terrorized by the demonic little creatures that live there.  This remake puts a praiseworthy spin on the original plot by adding a little girl, Sally (Bailee Madison) to the mix.  It fits with Guillermo del Toro’s favorite theme, of children in turmoil.  Sally is depressed and overmedicated, and upset that she has simply been handed over to her father and his girlfriend, who seek to renovate the old Blackwood mansion and get their failing business back on its feet.  You’d think that old mansions that people disappeared from centuries ago (as established in a chilling prologue) would not seem attractive to live in, but apparently no one in the movie read the Book of Horror Cliches.  Sally starts hearing whispering and scratching, and even glimpses the horrible beasts that live under the house and feed on children’s teeth.  Naturally, none of the adults believe her, until all hell seriously breaks loose and everyone starts to realize that something is horribly wrong with the house.

The scariest thing about a good “haunted house” horror film is, to me, not knowing what exactly you’re supposed to be afraid of.  By that token, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark commits the cardinal sin of the genre: it shows us these creatures way too often.  We get an extremely brief glimpse of the creatures in the prologue, and they are revealed in full about 45 minutes into the film.  It seems too early for them to make their appearance; the tension isn’t given enough time to ramp up, and the rest of the film after that reveal is watching the creatures sneak around and try to take Sally while the adults don’t believe her terrified accounts of seeing and hearing the monsters.  Eventually, the formula gets a little tired, and it’s hard not to wish that the film had balanced itself a little bit better by waiting an extra twenty minutes or so before showing the demons.

That’s still not to say that the movie is without tension; there’s a decent amount of it, even if it sometimes fails.  There’s still a pretty nasty sense of unease throughout most of the film, especially when the cruelty of these beasts is made obvious.  One thing that it does right is slowly ramp up the tension until the last fifteen or so minutes, when it hits a crescendo of chaos and all hell breaks loose once everyone knows the truth about the creatures and the creatures give up on trying to be sneaky.  This last act was, to my surprise, extremely exciting.  It might not be anything new for a horror soundtrack to go for the “5 guys going to town on some violins” sound, but it’s still as effective as it ever was for the climax, and the main theme has a neat 60’s horror vibe.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is not a bad film by any means; in fact, it’s quite good, and is decently tense even if it does sometimes either miss the mark, seem a teensy bit silly, or slip into tired horror cliches.  It looks nice, sounds great, and is nicely acted all around.  It’s a well-made chiller with some pretty muscular scares, but it’s still hard not to be just a little disappointed when it doesn’t turn out to be the heart-stopping horror masterpiece it was obviously meant to be.

Score: *** (out of 5)

Rated: R for violence and terror

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Posted on August 29, 2011, in Reviews. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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