A remake of the 1973 movie of the same name, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is both a spooky and chilling film with a very tense atmosphere, creepy music and believable performances by Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce. Most of the praise should be directed towards three people. The first being Bailee Madison, who plays the scared child stalked by the scary little monsters and the second and third being director Troy Nixey and writer/producer Guillermo del Toro. All three mix together and deliver a very haunting horror film that focuses on scaring your pants off with buildup and tension and not just splashes of blood and gore.
Sally (Baliee Madison) moves into a big old house, owned by her father, Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes). Their plans are to fix up the house and sell it, but they know little to nothing on the history of the house and what lies in the dark basement. The house was owned by the famous painter named Blackwood (Garry McDonald), who disappeared along with his own son. His workshop has since been sealed off until these new residents move in and slowly unlock rooms and secrets of an old legend. Just briefly describing the film brings chills up my arms. It’s a classic horror tale that sets everything into play slowly and then comes to a frightening and satisfying conclusion. The more the family knows about the house and the little demons inside it, the more things go horribly wrong for them and everyone else around them.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has Guillermo del Toro‘s hands painted all over it, from the story to the setting and even the general pacing. It builds up exactly like his films do, spending time with the youngster as she roams the massive backyard, to the shocking and soon to be classic scene that takes place under the covers and results in a jump, even though it was shown in most trailers! It’s only that kind of tension that lingers in DBAOTD. The whole film has a dark and brooding tone and I think a lot of that can be because of the sound mixing and musical score. When the creatures whisper, their voices pan across the back speakers very quietly but very clearly. This is a film that must be scene on the big screen with hopefully little to no talking.
I can promise that anyone who calls this film slow or boring is probably someone who enjoys texting or talking during movies at the theater. It is true, the film is a very traditional classic slow burn type of horror film, but it does it in such a way that always keeps you focused and engaged. You’re always on the edge of your seat waiting for what’s to come. Just when you think you have it figured out something jumps out of nowhere and tries to pull you into the darkness! I appreciate the change of pace that DBAOTD provided. It’s not often that we get a horror film that respects the audience by not throwing in stupid characters or random blood and sex. Sometimes filmmakers want to scare the audience by using classic tools that have been around since the dawn of film. Clever audio mixing, dark and unsettling imagery that is still clear to see and interesting characters are all accounted for in DBAOTD.
Speaking of interesting characters, Bailee Madison is just fantastic as Sally. She captures that innocent but curious child perfectly. Everyone had an exploring phase in their childhood at some point and that is exactly where Sally is at in life. Her parents are divorced and her dad has a new, young girlfriend that is trying to be friendly but coming off as forceful, which leads to Sally revolting everything they say. When she stumbles upon a secret basement that contains a secret door, she immediately tries to open it and discover more. Not listening to the creepy warning signs of creatures telling her to open the door, Sally just goes along and opens it! It’s totally understandable and still making you shout out, “Don’t fucking open it”!
Guy Pearce plays Alex, the father who has no experience in the field of parenting. He’s too busy with work to care about his child, but he does love her. I liked Guy’s transformation, even though it felt a little forced towards the end. He really gave off the dickhead vibe for most of the film, but it was required for the wrap up.
Katie Holmes shocked the hell out of me as Kim, who also has no experience at parenting, but at least wants to try and learn something. She starts out like all of the other girlfriends, wanting to be friends with the child by offering toys and such, but she really starts to unravel as a person later on in the film, when she explains how she is not ready and not really willing to become a mother at this point in her life and that she is still trying to deal with her own problems. I liked her relationship with Sally and I thought it was a lot better than it should have been, primarily because Holmes gives off such great screen presence. She’s not the dumb bimbo type or the tough warrior mom, she lands somewhere in the middle, caring and still cradling a bit of badass in her.
The creature effects are very nice and very creepy! The little bastards spend most of the time hiding in the shadows or doing an act off screen, which usually brings most of the terror, but when they are finally revealed more towards the end, it comes as a nice payoff. They feel very much like Gremlins, while still adding their own scary and mysterious traits. I like how their back story is revealed, but is never really the focus of the film; I thought that the mystery of their existence really played in the films favor.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a simple reminder that the term less is more still applies to modern films. You don’t need a 2 hour prequel origins film explaining a creature’s existence to sell moviegoers and you don’t need a film full of cookie cutter characters getting splattered with blood and guts to sell tickets. If you have a film with simple, yet interesting characters, backed up by a very creepy story, then you have successfully made a true horror film. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark worked so well because of its simple approach with classic music effects, tension, build up and shots that don’t reveal every little detail.
Sometimes things can be a lot scarier because of what you can’t see and director Troy Nixey and the rest of the crew totally understood that while making the film. It’s a film that deserves a viewing not only because it’s well-made and effective, but because it also deserves support and recognition. Support because it shows that good horror is still possible in the mainstream, if the right talent is on the project and recognition for being able to scare the shit out of me and make me jump a dozen times without having to sacrifice any plot points or character moments.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is true horror, honest horror and important horror!
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark – 8/10