In the 1970s, there was a number of made-for-television horror movies and among the best remembered were “Salem’s Lot,” “Burnt Offerings” and “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.” Of the last film, modern horror master Guillermo Del Toro has referred to it as “the scariest movie (he’s) ever seen.” If one were to watch it today, they’d scoff at that sentiment as the pacing is weird and the monsters are silly. But anyone could look back at the stuff that gave them the chills as kids with new, more cynical eyes, however, what Del Toro is trying to do as producer and co-writer of this new remake is to get all of us to feel what we felt as kids again. Whether or not he succeeds is another story.
The film stars Bailee Madison as Sally, our nine year old scream queen, and the story is told through her eyes. In the original, Sally was a newly married housewife moving into her inherited mansion, but in this version, she’s visiting her father and his girlfriend (Guy Pierce and Katie Holmes respectively) while they’re remodeling a very old house (we are reminded of this every time a new scene starts as the couple finishes up a conversation about home decor: “Oh, what do you think the drapes in the dining room should be?”). Madison does an impressive job carrying the film bringing a natural sympathy we need in a protagonist with a nice dose of obnoxiousness that makes her feel like a real kid.
The movie is at its most engrossing when its going through its early, mysterious scenes. Imbued with a moody, foreboding atmosphere, shades of “Pan’s Labyrinth” are felt as Sally explores the extensive garden and discovers the hidden basement where all the supernatural trouble emanates from. But unfortunately, that influence doesn’t carry over to the creatures and the monsters in this movie are, like the original, a tad silly. They are ugly, tiny fairy like people who need to feed on children’s teeth (and it’s assumed that they’ll discard the rest of the body in an unseemly fashion) each time they are released into the world. They try to lure their victim in with a unified whisper, saying things that play into Sally’s insecurities of not being wanted by her father or his girlfriend. But the one weakness of these creatures is the light, and as it turns out, so is the movie’s.
Because when we actually get a good look at what is actually hiding in the dark, they’re not that scary. The purely CGI creations look cartoonish and it’s unfortunate that the film abandons the atmosphere that it builds so well, in favor of loud, dull scenes of CG mayhem. But this all may be due to a lack of directorial presence. Unlike “The Orphanage,” which saw Del Toro act in a godfather role with director J.A. Bayona who made strong and personal choices, this never feels like helmer Troy Nixey‘s movie. The best moments of the film feel like Del Toro is guiding his hand and the worst feels like a cheap imitation.
Del Toro also must shoulder some of the blame in his role as the co-writer for thin and somewhat stock characterizations of the supporting players. Sally’s father spends much of the the film staunchly refusing to believe that anything supernatural may be behind the strage happenings in his new home, even as his girlfriend does an impressive amount of research to try and prove to him that something evil may be afoot. The audience we saw the film with audibly laughed when after a climactic sequence, Sally’s father puts his daughter to bed and says to himself, “I just don’t know what to do.” With these characters firmly rooted in standard horror tropes, Del Toro and Nixey miss an opportunity to evolve the material.
“Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark” builds to a climactic flurry in which all the film’s flaws became even more exposed. And that’s a shame because, in its best moments, Del Toro and Nixey succeed in making you feel like a scared little kid again, but by the time the film wraps up, it leaves you feeling like an adult laughing at your former self for being terrified in the first place. [C+]