There are a few moments in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, an effective but flawed frightfest written and produced by first-class scaremonger Guillermo del Toro, that shred the audience’s nerves like cat claws on curtains, but many more that fall disappointingly flat.
All of the best scares center around the various horrors suffered by pint-sized protagonist Sally Hurst (Bailee Madison) as she investigates a creepy Victorian manor being restored by her apathetic father (Guy Pearce) and his concerned girlfriend (Katie Holmes). Contrary to what the film’s title suggests, she is and should be very afraid of the house’s dark corners, where hundreds of nasty little creatures lurk with sinister plans for Sally.
It’s a solid premise for a horror movie, but also where Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, adapted from the 1973 ABC TV movie of the same name, hits its first snag. Though the film’s setting lends it a nicely spooky atmosphere, the movie’s resident monsters are not nearly as terrifying as they’re meant to be. Part of the problem is that they are rendered in truly egregious CGI far too often, and this robs them of all mystery. The creatures would be much scarier antagonists if they weren’t shown so clearly and instead stayed in the shadows, making only one or two appearances throughout the entire movie. As it is, they’re painfully overexposed and ultimately no more terrifying than Spiderwick Chronicles-style gremlins.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark also suffers from a glut of groan-inducing horror tropes, aside from lazy writing and B-plots abandoned almost as soon as they’re introduced. Flashlights never work when they are supposed to, doors never open when they need to, and smart protagonists uncharacteristically make boneheaded decisions when the script calls for it. Too many scares rely on cheap, predictable jump-out ploys. That being said, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark doesn’t rest on its laurels; it at least tries to make something out of those tropes, ramping up the tension to almost unbearable levels as the film enters its final act.
Madison is the film’s ace in the hole, expertly communicating Sally’s curiosity, naivety, loneliness, and anger in just a few glances whenever she’s on screen. She’s a lively, three-dimensional character with believable strengths and weaknesses. Thanks to Madison’s emotive performance, Sally is the only character audiences will be hoping gets out alive. Unfortunately, not so much for Holmes and Pearce. The two are resigned to bland, static roles, though Holmes tries harder to make her reluctant mother character admirable and sympathetic than Pearce, who simply chews the scenery.
Despite some nerve-fraying scenes and a palpable sense of dread that permeates the entire movie, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark never breaks away from its script’s piled clichés to become a bona fide horror movie on its own terms. The most disappointing thing about the film is del Toro himself. Though his name is slapped across the cover, his influence is nowhere to be found. The creatures hold none of the majesty, beauty, or mystery of other del Toro creations, and the film’s scares are never as effective or thoughtful as those in his other projects.
Though its ability to build tension is admirable, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark squanders a promising premise with a lousy script and lacks the richer psychological scares of the original TV movie. Madison and Holmes give it their all, but their performances are undermined by the script’s mediocrity and lackluster special effects. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is ultimately an example of a perfectly serviceable horror flick that could have been so much more. B-
Image Courtesy: Miramax.