Review: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)

Perhaps the title Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was intended to be ironic. Otherwise, I’m not sure why the literal text of the story establishes early and often that “the dark” is what ushers in the film’s particular brand of nasty little monsters, and that we should indeed be very afraid of it. Most unfortunate is that there doesn’t seem to be much irony or suggestiveness at all in this film’s DNA; it is basically a straightforward haunted house movie with a few pleasing injections of visual goth that holds our superficial interest but doesn’t even try to probe any deeper.

Such a result is curious and disappointing, given the film’s origin. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is “presented by” Guillermo del Toro, a modern master of horror with depth and purpose. As we all know, a “presented by” credit is not necessarily an indication of intimate involvement in a project, but rather a name-drop to help the business prospects for a film that would otherwise sink once it hits the water. But wait – Guillermo del Toro was intimately involved. He produced the film and co-wrote the screenplay. The disappointment is therefore multiplied – this is lightweight material for del Toro, a minor-key work that misses the opportunity to go deeper with its story and characters. It’s del Toro on autopilot.

Bailee Madison is a very talented young actress (did you see her work in Jim Sheridan’s Brothers? Wow), and here she takes center stage in a standard Tormented Child role as Sally, who has come to live with her father for reasons the film never specifies. All you need to know is she’s troubled, and moving to an old, cavernous haunted house in the middle of nowhere doesn’t do anything to resolve her issues. Guy Pearce plays her architect father, who basically ignores poor Sally’s increasing distress, and Katie Holmes comes out of hiding to play daddy’s new girlfriend, who is far more sympathetic. Coming from del Toro, one might assume these characters would be put through situations that changed them in some interesting and unexpected way, but they basically remain static as they progress through an equally immobile story full of repetitive “BOO!” moments but no real terror.

Based on the title, you might be asking, “what, exactly, is lurking in the dark?” I won’t spoil it for you, other than to say that the concept is pure del Toro, and the execution lacks any of the spice or the warmth that we’ve come to expect from him. There are elements of eerie goth and hints of whimsical fantasy – also classic del Toro-isms – but the material never reaches beyond that surface construction. Performances are fine, though Madison is the only actor required to do any real acting. Pearce is basically there to run into Sally’s bedroom when she screams and then ignore her stories of terror. Holmes plays a character intended to be significant to the story, but something obviously happened in the editing that undercut the character, which leaves Holmes as a murky presence whose arc neither makes sense nor matters to us in any legitimate way.

First-timer Troy Nixey was tapped by del Toro to direct the film, and he acquits himself fairly well. Most of his compositions homage those of his employer, but he is nonetheless able to evoke tension and dread with smart directorial choices and elaborate set design. And in all honesty, the movie is always mildly entertaining in a very superficial scary-movie way. But coming from the mind of one of the modern masters of rich, kinky, surprisingly heartfelt horror, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark feels hollow and incomplete, almost as if del Toro was indeed just a “presenter” and not an active member of the production.

44/100 - Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark looks like del Toro and smells like del Toro, but it feels too shallow to be true del Toro.

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Jason McKiernan

Sr. Staff Film Critic
I married into the cult of cinema at a very young age - I wasn't of legal marriage age, but I didn't care. It has taken advantage of me and abused me many times. Yet I stay in this marriage because I'm obsessed and consumed. Don't try to save me -- I'm too far gone.

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