Don’t believe the title of this film. You should definitely be afraid of the dark. Not because it’s scary, but because it’s a boring, time-waster of a movie. It opens moderately well, I suppose, although the kill sequence does relatively little to relate itself to the rest of the story, but after that it’s not creepy, not terribly atmospheric — not anything. It’s just dull, producing the most uninspired scares possible, two of the least likable characters in recent movie history, and being completely void of anything interesting.
The opening kill involves a person hammering a chisel into the head of his housekeeper, removing her teeth soon afterward. And then he’s killed. By what? You don’t get to see right away, but it’s by a group of creatures who look like a cross between Tinker Bell and a rat. It makes sense that they look like this, given that one of the minds behind the project is Guillermo del Toro. I don’t think that’s spoiling much. You know something’s going to haunt whatever family eventually moves into this house; does it really matter what they look like? Besides, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark shows the creatures early on — rarely in clear sight, but you still see them — so it’s not like they’re a big secret.
Okay, we have a threat. Now all we need is for someone to move into the house and be terrorized. That role falls to a trio of people, two of whom have never met. The leading role actually falls to Bailee Madison, playing an 8-year-old girl named Sally. Sally’s father, Alex (Guy Pearce), is dating an interior decorator named Kim (Katie Holmes), and together the couple are restoring and eventually selling an old home — yes, the same home we saw earlier.
Eventually, Sally starts seeing things, but her parent and soon-to-be step-parent are too busy and uncaring to deal with it. Kim tries to care, but Sally’s an anti-social brat, and doesn’t take well to new people. This at least explains why Kim ends up feeling distant. Sally’s father, on the other hand, is the kind of person you want to end up punching by the end of it. He’s just so dismissive that it actually almost makes sense that his child wound up this way — and no, I don’t care that the two weren’t living together prior to the film’s beginning; he’s that awful that he can affect her from miles away.
So, we’ve got a spoiled brat — mental illness or not, she’s portrayed as a spoiled brat and that’s all that matters — and uncaring father, and a woman so put off by the both of them that you have to wonder why she sticks around. At least I could sympathize with Kim. Living with these people would drive me a little bit insane, too.
How does any of this make for a good horror movie? At an early point, two of these three characters had put me off so much that I wanted to see them eaten by the tooth-fairy-things. I know, I know, that’s a bad thing to hope to happen to a child, but I felt like she wasn’t giving me much choice. Sally at least improves by the end of the film, becoming more sympathetic, especially as her pleas for help are increasingly ignored — the whole “Cried Wolf” thing applies, I suppose. You know she’s right in saying that these things exist, but her father won’t listen to her. He’s more of a bad guy here than the creatures.
There aren’t many actual scares in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Nor are there many attempted. Jump scares are a foreign concept to director Troy Nixey, which I was actually happy with. They’re cheap and they startle, not scare. But they at least show an attempt. The only attempt here is to build atmosphere, which works up to a point, but nothing is ever done with it and it eventually fizzles out into nothing. Wasted potential.
The creatures themselves look fine, whenever they’re not being obscured by (1) the darkness, (2) the camera or (3) the editing. They’re not exactly as unique as anything in Pan’s Labyrinth, but they look fine. I understand why they’re hidden for most of the time. The film’s budget is relatively small, and the things you don’t see are supposed to be scary. It doesn’t work here, unfortunately, in large part because the creatures themselves aren’t worth the effort to fear, but the principle applied is often sound.
Bailee Madison actually makes for an emotional lead actor, and certainly gets us to hate her in the earlier portions. I know Guy Pearce is deeply loved by lots of people, but I didn’t like him here. He wasn’t emotional or deep, and he had no chemistry with either other principal cast member. Katie Holmes wasn’t terrible, but she wasn’t as strong as she has been in previous films.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a bad horror movie. It’s a complete waste of time from start to finish, lacks scares in every scene, and doesn’t use any of the small amount of atmosphere it manages to build. The lead actor, the youngest, was actually the best, and it makes sense that Madison seems to appear in a boatload of films nowadays. She’s good here, and if the film around her was just as strong, it might have been worth watching. It’s a dull horror movie that you had might as well just forget.