It’s been hyped up, hotly anticipated and pushed hard by the big name behind it, but at the end of the day Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is just not that scary.
Sure, Troy Nixey’s haunted house movie — co-produced and co-scripted by Guillermo Del Toro — has the high end bonafides, revealed in the sumptuous wood-paneled mansion setting and the patient, operatic camera movements. It’s got the eerie historical aura, the tortured child and the expressionistic rendition of shadowy figures creeping through the darkness.
But when this remake of a popular made-for-TV movie from 1973 finally shows all its cards, you wonder what you’ve missed. There’s a serious disconnect between the highfalutin atmospherics and the nitty- gritty sloppiness of the premise, a sort of People Under the Stairs for rich white New Englanders. Reliant on the timeless “boo” effect and the hint of something deeper and sinister, the film basically offers one long, drawn out exercise in scaring the pants off a pre-teen.
Despite Bailee Madison’s best efforts to imbue real-world pathos into the part of Sally, incorporating the subtle vulnerable rage of a young girl neglected by her parents, there’s only so much she can do when faced with the terrifying prospect of acting opposite tiny demonic gremlins and Katie Holmes. Madison is ready to assume the mantle of Jodie Foster/Dakota Fanning wunderkind and there are flashes of serious, thoughtful acting interspersed throughout the screaming, crying and physical struggling that marks much of her time onscreen.
Sally has come to dreary, overcast Rhode Island from L.A. to live with dad Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Holmes). The adults live at a 19th century mansion owned by a famous artist named Blackwood, which they’re hard at work restoring. Deep inside a hidden, dusty basement beneath the lavish estate lies a furnace housing sinister whispering creatures that take an immediate liking to Sally. It becomes their mission, for reasons best left unsaid, to draw her down there alone. Dad and Kim are clueless and disaffected, Sally is lonely and curious, and the recipe for serious supernatural disaster is complete.
The movie is so well shot by cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, with a rich interplay of light and dark and vivid classical framing, that you’re almost ready to forgive the sputtering narrative. Under Stapleton’s eye, the house becomes a character every bit as memorable as the Overlook Hotel, the perfect setting for the sort of nerves fraying, psychological torture exercise that Stanley Kubrick so memorably perfected. You feel the generations of dark secrets buried within the Blackwood mansion.
Still, Del Toro and co-screenwriter Matthew Robbins don’t dig below the surface and into the fiber of their characters. Pearce is wooden as the superficial workaholic dad and Holmes mistakes glumness for gravitas as Kim, but they don’t have much to do other than react to Madison’s dilemma with disbelieving obliviousness.
They are not compelling enough to carry the picture; they’re inadequate when it comes to adding the human drama that must inform and embolden the frightening, otherworldly stuff. The larger emotional wounds that might make Sally susceptible to such dastardly attention are undercooked by the writers.
The film never transcends the basic phenomenon of tiny goblins stalking a little girl. The only shot at salvation, then, would be a forceful cinematic display of sheer visceral terror, embodied in a frenzy of horrific images and experiences.
Instead, once again, all we’re offered are small, squeaky, occasionally knife-wielding goblins, and there’s never any sense that Sally can’t handle them herself. In a genre rife with extraordinary villainous creations Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’s simply don’t rate and neither, ultimately, does the movie.
The Upside: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is sumptuously shot. Bailee Madison is great.
The Downside: Tiny goblins are just not scary.
On the Side: Guillermo Del Toro reportedly considers the 1973 made-for-TV Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark the scariest film ever made for the small screen.