A solid, well-paced, unsettling horror film, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a crafty little devil. Directed by Troy Nixey, the Canadian comic book artist, this 2011 movie comes written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins. It’s based on the 1973 television movie of the same name, which was penned by Nigel McKeand.
Obviously the del Toro name lends this picture some integrity it may otherwise have lacked, but his influence is more than just a nameplate. His visions of young female protagonists and fairy-based creatures come with reverberations of Pan’s Labyrinth, another parable of atmosphere and fright through the eyes of a child.
In Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Bailee Madison is that child. She is Sally, an eight-year-old sent to live with her father (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) Rejected by her mother and put on Adderall of all things, Sally arrives at the fixer-upper mansion her dad is restoring and is instantly taken in by the eeriness of the place.
One day, Sally discovers that the manor has a basement. She naturally wanders in, much to the chagrin of worker Mr. Harris (Jack Thompson). Ignoring his warnings, Sally opens a sealed fireplace after hearing mysterious hushed voices. Unbeknownst to her at first, she’s unleashed a whole lot of trouble.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark uses tiny beings for its terror and the pintsized buggers truly do some damage, attacking poor Mr. Harris with scissors and knives and getting Sally in lots of trouble in inopportune moments. They scuttle under her sheets, cause chaos in the bathtub and even destroy the library.
The picture wisely structures these moments of chaos with the other problems the family is having. By painting Sally as unbalanced when she’s first introduced, the audience knows that she’s not going to be immediately trusted. But how much of putting her on Adderall is a matter of controlling the girl for her distant mother’s sake?
It is clear that Sally is retreating into her own world, but those latent fancies threaten reality in short order. Kim, seeking some form of relationship with the girl, forges ahead with the will to marry Sally’s father and get on with a new life. Unfortunately, her beau is wrapped up in flipping the manor; too much is financially at stake to listen to stories about tiny creatures.
Speaking of the creatures, there’s generally always some disappointment when little buggers like these are eventually shown. A filmmaker must walk the line between showing too little and showing too much, especially nowadays when people complain about horror movies not being overt enough. Audiences have tired of scanning corners for possibilities, it seems.
With Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, the creatures do indeed look like they’ve lived long lives on teeth and fireplace ashes. They look vile and vicious, but not slimy or overly gruesome. Different artistic interpretations of them come from Sally and the ancient owner of the manor; somehow the drawings seem creepier than the “real things.”
As with most films of this ilk, it relies on characters doing the wrong thing and/or not believing the right thing. That’s essential horror stuff and audiences should know by now that the limits of lucidity can either be enjoyed or not. Hitchcock might’ve called asking such questions “moronic logic,” but in some instances the inanity can be overbearing. Not so here, luckily.
In the end, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a sharp little horror picture. It deals in the things that go bump in the night and scares quite neatly thanks to Nixey’s capable direction and del Toro’s proclivity for fantasy and fable. It’s also probably a safe bet for kids Sally’s age, especially if they have a nightlight.