Remember that feeling you got when you were a kid? When there was something in the darkness. You didn’t know what it was, you couldn’t explain it, and you just knew that there was something dark and evil lurking under your bed or in your wardrobe. Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark taps into this feeling very well and puts it on screen; no easy feat. Guillermo Del Toro’s fingerprints are all over this one as co-writer and producer but, somewhat unfairly, his presence has overshadowed a really great directorial effort from Troy Nixey.
Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark starts in the 19thcentury with an old man in a big dark basement of an old house. He is doing the bidding of some dark and evil force that lives in the furnace that seems to crave human teeth. After a truly wince inducing teeth extraction scene we move forward one hundred years and a bit to modern times. We meet young Sally (Bailee Madison) a lost and lonely young girl who has been dumped by her movie star mother to go live with her father Alex (Guy Pearce) in Rhode Island with his new beau Kim (Katie Holmes). Alex and Kim are restoring a large colonial house, the one seen in the prologue and are nearly finished and planning to sell it on for a tidy profit. Sally explores the grounds and resists Kim’s attempts to bond with her. Something starts whispering to her from the darkness, something that seems friendly and playful at first. Initially intrigued, Sally finds that the whispers come from something ancient and evil that has anything but the best intentions.
The less you know about the plot of this film the better. I knew nearly nothing apart from the fact that it’s based on a TV movie from the early seventies. As the story unfolded I found myself constantly surprised with how dark it gets and there are some clever revelations that line up nicely with Guillermo Del Toro’s usual obsessions. The film has a lot in common with Pans Labyrinth in that it follows a young girl who may or may not be making up an elaborate fantasy which becomes increasingly disturbing. The adults here are a lot more approachable than those seen in that film though. Bailee Madison is fantastic in the role of Sally, a really talented child actress who can cry on cue and portray absolute terror without skipping a note. The whole thing would have fallen apart had this actress not been A plus and luckily every time she cries or whimpers the audience is right there with her. Katie Holmes is also pretty good as the woman trying desperately to be a mother figure but not really knowing or wanting the responsibility. It’s a character that could have fallen very easily into cliché as the malevolent force sows seeds of doubt and mistrust between Sally and Kim, but doesn’t because the script is better than that and there are no drawn out confrontation scenes, just a woman trying to understand a child’s trauma. Guy Pearce unfortunately is given little to do in an under written role, and for an actor of his talents he really deserved more.
Troy Nixey wisely sets most of the film in dimly lit grand old rooms or shadowy basements and bedrooms. There is a masterful use of shadows here and the whole time watching the movie your eyes are drawn to the darkness just hoping and fearing that you’ll catch a glimpse of something. I thought Insidious would be the last word on jump scares in 2011 but this film trumps it. There is a scene involving a child’s eye view of searching underneath the duvet for something which is without doubt THE jump scare of the year. The scares are not telegraphed the way they are with most films these days (hello Scream 4) and the film manages to be darkly funny whilst scaring you witless. The creatures are also brilliantly realised, I’m not sure what the budget was here but the subject matter necessitates keeping things mostly in the shadows and as such the limits of the CG creations are not tested so they remain very convincing and very scary.
Ultimately though, there is something that holds Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark back from greatness and I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. Maybe it’s because the ending doesn’t quite live up to what has come before. Or maybe its because there are a few plot threads left hanging that aren’t necessarily wrapped up or developed as well as they could have been. I suspect there is more material with Katie Holmes' character on the cutting room floor but an eventual DVD release will likely clear that up.
Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark is lots of dark scary fun and should still be in cinemas by the time Halloween rolls around. It’s no classic but it’s certainly better than most horror related sequels to one note gimmick films that will probably be released in October.
Expected rating: 9 out of 10
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark will be in UK cinemas October 7th