Don’t Be Afraid…of Anything But this Terrible Movie

dont be afraid of the dark Dont Be Afraid...of Anything But this Terrible Movie

Holmes.

Scary movies can get away with breaking promises to their audience. They can resurrect exhausted clichés (creepy old houses packed with things bumping in the night) and they can even toss in stale character archetypes (the clueless father, the precocious child who sees things adults don’t). But one crime even the best horror can’t get away with is presenting characters so stupid that we lose all interest in whether they live or die. Which is the heart of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.

This film was completed in 2010 and sat on a Miramax shelf for a year (never a good sign). Now it’s being billed as “presented by” Guillermo del Toro, the monster-film virtuoso who won mainstream glory with Pan’s Labyrinth. This marketing tactic has a clear goal: to convince people that this film is something more than a cauldron of stewed garbage. Yes, Mr. Del Toro did co-write and co-produce this fiasco. But those of us who love him refuse to believe his involvement was much more than a little creative direction and a few rubber stamps.

The story starts off tepid, graduates into dull and then careens into sheer idiocy: nine-year-old Sally (an appropriately cute and somber Bailee Madison) is sent by her neglectful mother to live with her father (Guy Pearce, a magnetic actor who phones in every line of this movie) and his textbook postdivorce girlfriend (who else but Katie Holmes?). Of course, they can’t live in just any house—they’re inhabiting and restoring Blackwood Manor, a gothic mansion in Rhode Island filled with secret rooms, shadowy corners and macabre history. As soon as Sally arrives, the night-bumping commences, the hellish beasties eventually emerge, and their cartel proceeds to torment poor the child while the adults ignore her screams and chalk up her behavior to “excessive nerves.”

This plot formula is used more than a Port Authority restroom for a reason: it works. The “precocious child sees what the blind adults can’t” premise can be deeply powerful and terrifying. But it works only if the child is truly precocious, and if the adults are in any way likeable/relatable. Here we have Sally (since when do modern parents name their babies Sally?) displaying a total lack of self-preservation in the face of ominous voices coming from a basement sewer—she goes so far as to steal a box of tools to remove metal bolts from a grate to set them free (since 9-year-olds have an in-depth knowledge of tools, not to mention the strength of a linebacker). Meanwhile, every adult seems afflicted with a severe case of numbskullery—a man emerges from the basement with scissors plunged into his neck and all the housekeeper can do is stare, while the accepted remedy for Sally’s terrified screams is “Oh, I just put her to bed.”

Don’t even get me started on Katie Holmes.

On the plus side, the movie looks gorgeous—everything Mr. Del Toro touches looks a little like Pan’s Labyrinth, with its magical realism and canorous sense of the natural world. No one else can anthropomorphize a set of hedges or a library to the point of menacing beauty. The mansion is magnificent, the raison d’etre of the film—every detail is sumptuous and shot with elegant classicism. Even the creatures look impressive, with their skeletal faces and Skeksis posture.

With so much visual beef to work with, director Troy Nixey manages a few genuine creep-you-out moments. But mostly he relies on a single fallback to bring the scare: Sally screaming. In the best horror, child screams are reserved for moments of extreme suspense and foreboding—think Tommy Doyle in Halloween or Carol Anne Freeling in Poltergeist. Overuse the kid scream, and you go from razor-sharp tension to “Where are my %&$ing earplugs??” Here, we get a 9-year-old screaming incessantly for 60 minutes, while her parents do nothing—it’s like being trapped in a suburban Chuck E. Cheese.

This whole debacle is a shame—after announcing he was no longer directing The Hobbit, Mr. Del Toro sustained a blow to his post-Pan’s Labyrinth armor, and this washout brings him one step closer to full career rupture. It just goes to show, no matter how burnished your backdrop or splendiferous your setting, if your script is crap, you’re stuck with a total dud.

editorial@observer.com

DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK

Running time 100 minutes

Written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins

Directed by Troy Nixey

Starring Guy Pearce, Katie Holmes, Bailee Madison

1.5/4

Comments

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  2. Chris says:

    This has to be one of the worst movie reviews I’ve ever read. This is obviously just a personal swipe at Del Toro. “Strength of a linebacker” to unscrew a grate? Del Toro’s career is in jeopardy? Really? I understand the compulsion to come off as clever by being critical of a popular figure in film, but your review speaks far more about your feelings toward Del Toro’s success than the film itself.

  3. Marie says:

    Okay, first off Sally’s character is 10 not 9. Check your facts, or pay attention to the movie next time instead of trying to find it’s downfalls. You know who was 9 though? Guillermo del Toro. He based this movie (Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark) on the 1973 made-for-TV thriller that he first saw when he was nine. The made-for-TV thriller is what inspired del Toro to create horror films. Wow, good thing you don’t think del Toro had anything to do with the film, or else these facts that he’s shared with us wouldn’t make sense. As for the name, ‘Sally’, it was a pretty common name to have in 1973. You obviously don’t remember being a ten year old kid. When you’re ten, you have a wild imagination, parents sometimes ignore/don’t believe you, and you are capable of things others might not agree with (clearly). Aside from your lack of facts, have you ever had to analyze a film? I know some film majors that would find your review a waste of everyones time, including yours. Do you know what the themes are in this film, the message it’s portraying, each character significance, or anything relevant that del Toro and Nixey have cleverly placed? This is a perfect horror film! Everything is explained, there are misunderstandings that can or do lead to destruction, blood is spilled, and fears are raised. When I saw it in theaters everyone in the audience and jumped or screamed at least twice, girls were hanging onto their boyfriends while the boyfriends were clutching the chairs, and people whispering in fear, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God.’ Overall, ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the dark is a beautifully horrifying film.

  4. Anarky321 says:

    one of the worst movies i’ve ever seen; my jaw just dropped when the wife got dragged into the grate and they just calmly got in the car and drove away…what?! not even going to TRY and go down there to see if you can rescue her?! no? how about calling the POLICE? nope lets just put a “For Sale’ sign out front and drive off…amazing…i cant imagine how any executive could have read the script and rubber stamped it for production; not even a 10 year old kid can overlook the plot holes in this film