No, really – don’t.
Like many of us, I was hanging some heavy hopes on Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark as a late-summer horror treat. After all, it’s produced and co-written by genre master Guillermo del Toro, it’s based on a wonderfully creepy made-for-TV gem from my childhood, and it’s got all the makings of an atmospheric spookfest par excellence (big old house, monsters, precocious little girls, lather, rinse, repeat).
But despite having the fingerprints of the man who brought us Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, and The Orphanage all over it, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark feels like a clumsy imitation of del Toro’s uniquely lush and moving brand of horror. It’s kind of like the Northern Exposure to del Toro’s Twin Peaks. Hampered by a muddy script, a few unlikable leads, and a general lack of scariness, Dark sadly misses the mark.
When young Sally (Bailee Madison) is shipped off by her irresponsible mom to live with her equally irresponsible father in an old mansion that he’s renovating, she’s none to happy. Dad (Guy Pierce, in a role he’s utterly wasted in) is more concerned with getting the cover of Architectural Digest than with addressing his daughter’s abandonment issues, so it’s left to his girlfriend/decorator Kim (Katie Holmes … more on her later) to try to warm the chilly little tyke up.
Unfortunately, much like the actress who plays her, Kim is well-intentioned but has no idea what she’s doing. And we already know from a pretty creepy opening-scene flashback that the mansion is inhabited by a horde of nasty little buggers who like to eat children’s teeth, which might get in the way of family bonding time.
While Sally gradually (a bit too slowly, for my tastes) comes to realize that her new friends are more gremlin than mogwai, Kim isn’t in on things until a bit late in the game. So her earnest attempts to connect with the kid – who has far more pressing concerns, like tiny monsters trying to slit her throat in the bathtub – are as off-key as the performance behind them.
Yes, I just called Katie Holmes a terrible actress (twice). The sooner we agree on this, the better.
Kim of course eventually does the standard library research (one of the most tired cliches of the genre, can we agree?) and realizes that Sally is in danger, but is it too late? Well, it may be too late for anyone to care, sadly. While Madison does an admirable job of hiding from/running from/running after/shrieking at the nasty little imps once she catches on to their agenda, the pacing and plot don’t really hold up their end of the bargain, thanks largely to a number of “Wait, what?” moments – breaks in logic or narrative that take you out of the film and slash the tires of any building suspense.
In this case, many of those moments involve characters falling asleep or getting knocked out for no reason other than to allow things to happen while they’re unconscious. I’m always annoyed by these narcoleptic plot-patches and may be more sensitive to them than most, but I hate them even more than I hate Katie Holmes’s patented “All Indication, All the Time” style of acting. (That’s three, if anyone’s counting.)
There are also some glaring inconsistencies regarding the monsters’ abilities: sometimes they can’t be close to even the dimmest light, and in other scenes they’re traipsing up and down the halls during a dinner party. They also sometimes have deadly weapons and are at other times unarmed, for some unknown reason. None of these seeming lapses in continuity serve to help maintain the high level of suspense very much needed to make such a ridiculous, camp-adjacent tale even remotely scary.
The film isn’t a total disaster, and there are a few good things to be said about it. A few centerpiece suspense scenes hit the mark (the bed scene from the preview; the bathroom attack; a weenie-shrinking recurring gag involving eyes getting poked out through keyholes) and I give them credit for staying true to the original film’s ending. But on the whole it’s a missed opportunity. And since I walked away from the film more scared of home renovations than of goblins, doesn’t that technically make it a remake of The Money Pit?
I know, I know – but the house is so spooooooky! And genre legend Julia “One Take” Blake plays the housekeeper! (Her only duty, apparently, is to run out the front door whenever a car pulls up and cry, “Thank GOODNESS you’ve come!”, which she does at least ten times.) And … And … del TORO!
Yes, I know. But unfortunately it all just doesn’t come together. Like a Jell-O mold that doesn’t take, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark aspires to be a statuesque yet disconcerting work of art, but amounts to little more than a sweet but unsatisfying puddle. If you are generally scared by computer-generated little goblins who whisper a lot, you might get a scare or two out of it, but otherwise the title’s warning is sadly unneeded – chances are, you won’t be afraid of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.
RATING (OUT OF 5):
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is Rated R for several scenes of a child in mortal peril, harm to Guy Pierce’s relevance, tooth trauma, and gratuitous Katie Holmes.
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