Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is an exercise in atmosphere and sheer creepiness. The plot is essentially a compendium of haunted house clichés, but I find that I don’t much care – not when the visuals and the mood are dictated by co-writer/co-producer Guillermo del Toro, whose fascination with insects, monsters, and dark places could not have been more appropriate for this story. Even in its routine state, the film is still a step up from the 1973 TV movie of the same name, which was badly acted and annoyingly light on specifics. Thanks to del Toro and writing partner Matthew Robbins, we now have an explanation for the film’s terrifying events. I grant you that it’s preposterous. How does one react to the discovery that the monsters in your basement form the basis of the Tooth Fairy myth? All I could do was smirk mischievously.
The look of the film is spot on. I delighted in the foggy skies, the overgrown gardens, the dead tree branches stretching like gnarled claws, the shadowy rooms, the consuming darkness, the rain and thunder and lightning. I had fun gazing at the gothic mansion central to the story – the cold masonry, the cavernous rooms, the organic wood tones, the hidden passageways, the stained-glass windows and carved archways. The standards have yet to be redefined following Eugenio Zanetti’s design work for 1999’s The Haunting, but considering how high he set the bar, it’s unlikely anyone will ever be able to top it (his version of Hill House is hands down the best-looking mansion in the history of horror movies). Regardless, production designer Roger Ford, art director Lucinda Thomson, and set decorator Kerrie Brown have done a splendid job making Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark look as terrifying as it feels.
In the film, a medicated and emotionally withdrawn young girl named Sally (Bailee Madison) is sent by her mother from Los Angeles to Rhode Island. There, she reunites with her father, an architect named Alex Hirst (Guy Pearce). He’s busy – too busy, in fact – overseeing the restoration of a nineteenth-century manor; if he can impress his superiors, which he hopes to do at an upcoming dinner party, the house will be displayed on the cover of an architecture magazine. Alex’s new girlfriend, an interior decorator named Kim (Katie Holmes), tries to bond with Sally, initially without success. Wandering the grounds one chilly day, Sally inadvertently discovers an underground room, the entrance of which was sealed behind a wall. This cellar, faded and filthy from decades of nonuse, contains a fireplace, which has mysteriously been bolted shut.
That’s not the only discovery Sally makes. All around her, there are whispers: “Sally…. We want to be your friend…. Set us free…. We’re so hungry…. Go to the basement….” It seems she’s the only one who can hear them, although the handyman, Mr. Harris (Jack Thompson), ominously warns her about certain places being unsafe for kids. Perhaps he knows more than he’s letting on. Letting curiosity get the better of her, Sally unbolts the fireplace and unleashes an army of miniature goblins with hunched forms and monstrous faces. We only get quick glimpses of them, for they spend most of their time concealed in the shadows. They scream in pain and feverishly scuttle away whenever they’re suddenly exposed to light, natural or artificial. Sally quickly learns that their intentions are hostile, and she spends the rest of the film desperately trying to get someone to believe that she’s telling the truth. It seems her only hope is Kim, who may not be a mom but clearly knows a frightened little girl when she sees one.
I neglected to describe the prologue sequence, which takes place sometime during the nineteenth century, or perhaps the very early twentieth. Considering the horrifying things that happen, you’d probably be better off not knowing beforehand. I like that I can say that about this film; it implies that you will leave the theater with more knowledge than you had upon entering. The original 1973 version seemed to deliberately bypass explanations, which I didn’t appreciate one bit. When it was over, all I wanted to know was why the creatures wanted Sally (played by Kim Darby, whose name almost surely led to the naming of Holmes’ character). What motivated them? Where did they come from? This new film takes the time to provide us with answers – silly answers, yes, but answers nonetheless.
Although not the suspenseful masterpiece I had hoped for (I blame an entire year’s worth of anticipation, prompted by a brilliantly scary teaser trailer), Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark maintains the right tone from start to finish. I savored the apprehension pervading every scene. I enjoyed the typecasted performances, especially Madison’s; I now forgive her the embarrassing British accent she adopted for the God-awful Just Go with It. I especially appreciated the craftsmanship. I was not only watching this film, I felt I was actually immersed in it. This is nothing short of astonishing considering the fact that it has been released in good old-fashioned 2D. Thank God for small favors. Imagine having to don picture-dimming 3D glasses for a film that spends much of its time engulfed in darkness. You might as well have your eyes closed the entire time.
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