Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Atmospheric but illogical haunted house chiller

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

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Directed by Troy Nixey. Starring Guy Pearce, Katie Holmes, Bailee Madison, Jack Thompson, Julia Blake, Garry McDonald, Nicholas Bell, James Mackay, Alan Dale. Written by Guillermo del Toro & Matthew Robbins, from the 1973 teleplay by Nigel McKeand.

Freshman director Troy Nixey’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a creepy and atmospheric Old Dark House thriller, a remake of the cult 1973 TV movie starring Kim Darby. Working from a script by Matthew Robbins and co-producer Guillermo Del Toro (whose Pan’s Labyrinth shares some stylistic similarities with this film), Nixey has crafted an effectively ominous film that tops the original in many regards.

There’s just one problem preventing this film from being a satisfying experience: huge lapses in logic, by the characters and also the filmmakers, which deaden the suspense and leave us scratching our heads, wondering why a character acted in a certain way, or why the director didn’t follow up on a storyline that could have fleshed out his plot.

Make that two problems: the impish demons in the original film were created using practical effects (read: puppets and actors), and left a memorably frightening impression. The creatures in the remake (which have been fleshed out with a tooth fairy-like backstory) are generic CGI creations that might be fine for the quick boo!, but have little lasting effect; apart from the size, they’re just about indistinguishable from the aliens in Super 8 and Cowboys and Aliens, or most other recent CGI monsters.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark stars Bailee Madison as Sally, a morose young girl sent by her mother from L.A. to live with her father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) in New England. Only catch: they live in a creepy old 19th Century mansion, which, we learn in the opening scene, is haunted by a horde of 10-inch monsters that live in the basement furnace.

Sally hears the monsters call out to her, and despite the warnings of grizzled caretaker Harris (Jack Thompson), she investigates the mansion’s sealed-up basement (which her architect father somehow missed) and the bolted-shut furnace within. Soon she’s paying the price, terrorized by little demons that are sensitive to light. And, of course, no one believes her.

They don’t believe her when the caretaker is stabbed repeatedly and taken away in serious condition (he “had an accident”) and they don’t believe her when an entire library is destroyed, she photographs the creatures, and even crushes one in the bookcase, leaving it’s severed arm on the floor. These elements are so intently focused on by the director, who then completely ignores any kind of response from the other characters; I was beginning to wonder if this was a satire of the nobody-believes-me plot, or if everything really was in the little girl’s head.

But no, the denouement is resolutely straightforward. This is a slick and polished effort, with effective camerawork (Oliver Stapleton), music (Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders), and (especially) sound design. But the script contained a few too many head-scratching elements for the filmmakers to maintain the carefully-composed suspense and sense of dread.

Scary movie fans could do a lot worse than Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which features a few genuine scares (the best of which, unfortunately, is completely spoiled by the trailer). But it’s a long way away from producer Del Toro’s similar Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, and 2011’s best haunted house movie is still the surprisingly effective (and underrated) Insidious.


Also opening: Saxána a Lexikon kouzel (Little Witch on a Broomstick; showtimes | IMDb), the latest fairy tale from director Václav Vorlíček (Tři oříšky pro Popelku). Screening in Czech.

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