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Movie Review: ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’

August 26, 2011

In 1973, ABC television aired a made for television movie called Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Many still refer to the film as one of the most frightening to ever air on television, and it earned a loyal cult following over the years, though it is difficult to track down.  Guillermo del Torro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Orphanage) co-wrote and produced this 2011 update, and relative newcomer Troy Nixey directed.

Sullen and withdrawn Sally (Bailee Madison) is sent to live with her dad Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) by her mother. This is the first indication that all the adults in the film are going to behave like idiots. I can only imagine the mother’s inner dialogue when coming to this asinine decision. Wow, Sally is depressed, withdrawn, acting out, and has abandonment issues. I think sending her to live with her dad in a spooky gothic mansion undergoing full renovation. That should be a soothing environment. (Because all know that a constant aural assault of hammers, power tools, and the like is sure to bring about a Zen-like state of calm in no time.)

Alex and Kim are trying to restore a historical mansion to its former glory in the hopes of landing the coveted cover of Architectural Digest. Mere hours after her arrival, Sally discovers an entire basement that had somehow gone undetected by Alex and Kim, despite the fact that they have been tinkering with every nook and cranny of the place for months. It is there that all the trouble begins.

Sally hears whispery voices calling out for her, and instead of hightailing it upstairs, she does what everyone in horror movies does-she investigates.  Soon, a long-dormant nest of creatures is released into the house, and makes life a living hell for Sally. The creatures crave human teeth, preferably those of a young child, so being the resident young person; Sally has a bulls-eye on her back.  Complicating matters, no one believes her until it is too late. Her only defense is the light (the creatures shun it), so the presence (or absence) of light is used to ratchet up the tension.

The first half of the film is quite promising. It is moody, scary and builds up the suspense extremely well. I jumped in my chair once, and I haven’t done that in years.  It also wastes no time jumping into the story, a welcome strategy. I was settled in for a delightful horror movie, but the film veers completely off the rails once the creatures are actually seen. This is definitely a movie that was more effective when everything is shrouded in mystery. Once the tiny rat creatures with ghoulish heads come into view, it’s ruined. They are just not scary. They are terrifying when you hear their voices emitting from the basement vents, or when you hear them scuttle around during the night. Once you see them, you just wonder why no one just stomps on them.

It’s at this point that the entire tone of the film shifts, as well. It just gets silly, and reminded me a lot more of Gremlins (1984) than a good old horror story. There were lots of chuckles during the second half of the film, and I have no idea if that was the intention or not.  It was really disappointing to see the atmosphere established in the beginning of the film completely wasted.

Young actress Madison does admirable job acting in the film. Her relationship with Kim is realistic. When Kim initially tries to make nice with the troubled girl, Sally just flips her the bird with her eyes. It takes a long time for any semblance of a bond to occur. Pearce’s character is the least realized of the bunch. He has no fatherly instincts, and insists on staying in the house to the bitter end, and we see that all the time in movies. It’s become a cliché. The film deserved better.  Del Torro also resorts to annoying exposition (a helpful librarian helps Kim uncover the origin of the creatures, ensuring we get it, too).  An ambiguous ending doesn’t help matters any.

I’ll give director Nixey the benefit of the doubt and see what he does next, because I was impressed with the first half of the film. I just wish it had stuck to its guns. This could have been a great horror film.

Rating 3/5

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is rated R. Directed by Troy Nixey, written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins. Starring Guy Pearce, Katie Holmes, and Bailee Madison.


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