Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark

Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark

**1/2

Reviewed by: David Graham

Guillermo del Toro brings one of his childhood favorites up to date for the new millennial horror crowd, gifting it to debut director Troy Nixey. The original 1973 telefilm has haunted the memories of many for years, with its tale of repressed housewife Kim Darby being tormented by a group of mini-goblins she has unwittingly unleashed.

This redo moves the action from suburbia to a sprawling country mansion, with an insular little girl trying to convince her estranged father and new step-mum that dark forces are at work. By applying his distinctive vision, del Toro should have been able to really bring the fear, but the changes he has made sacrifice much of the original's lingering spookiness while Nixey's overblown approach makes the film both too intense for smaller kids and not subtle enough to scare adults.

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Dysfunctional child Sally has been sent to live with the father she hasn't seen in years and his young wife in an antiquated mansion they're being paid to renovate. Alex's attempts to reconnect with his daughter fall flat due to his lack of understanding of her problems, while Kim's best efforts come across as condescending and are firmly rebuked.

Sally soon finds there's more to her new home than meets the eye. Strange voices whisper to her from behind a furnace door in the basement and it's not long before her curiosity gets the better of her. Releasing a malevolent army of rat-faced minions, she soon finds herself struggling to protect herself from their attacks and to convince the adults that it's not all in her imagination; the creatures' aversion to light could be the only thing that saves her from being dragged down into their subterranean hell.

A startling opening sequence is surprisingly grisly, featuring the sort of DIY dentistry normally reserved for the Saw series, while the characters' initial explorations of the mansion are wonderfully atmospheric despite the set design being ridiculously over-elaborate. The makeshift family have some appropriately awkward scenes together, while peripheral characters such as the warning-issuing handyman give the film a pleasantly old-fashioned flavor.

The psychological dimension of the original is also referenced - if somewhat clumsily - through how the adults perceive troubled Sally, mistaking some of the creatures' antics as her own. Initial scenes of the girl investigating her visually sumptuous surroundings and conversing with the monsters are charged with anticipation; the demons' hushed appeals are effortlessly spine-tingling and Nixey manages to keep suspense high by teasing us with brief glimpses of his antagonists.

Foregoing the forced perspective charm of the original - a technique also employed with memorable aplomb in Eighties kiddie horror The Gate and Stephen King anthology Cat's Eye - the creatures here are certainly horrible-looking but they're a little too cartoony quick and CGI slick to be convincing when they're interacting with characters and scenery. Just a little practical effects work would have gone a long way towards making these fiends frightening, but the effects don't do their design justice while the ridiculously increased number of them merely robs them of their individuality (the 1973 film had a trio of devils with distinct personalities).

Their mythology is also made more confusing for being more fleshed out; the prologue seems to be at odds with the ending, which does at least offer a creepy echo of the original. There are yawning plot holes to be found at every juncture - how the hell could anyone believe the damage doled out by these vicious critters could be an accident, and why would their victim let them think so? - while the beasties' inability to actually do anything with Sally other than repeatedly terrorise her soon grates.

Guy Pearce is deeply irritating, and it's hard to tell how deliberate this is. His character is meant to be ignorant of his wife and child's feelings, but he's so pig-headed and focused on his work that he becomes hard to swallow. Katie Holmes is a little bland but strikes a nice balance between being sensitive and vulnerable in her dealings with her new step-daughter. She's the only sympathetic adult in the film, but even her reaction to events is frustratingly unrealistic, being hesitant to leave the house even though she eventually acknowledges the danger therein. Experienced child actress Bailee Madison does her best to keep the audience invested in her trauma, being convincingly sharp, amusingly sullen and suitably resourceful during the many periods of peril, but unfortunately it's all a little too familiar, lacking the humor and charm of Gremlins or even Critters.

Ultimately though, the film's biggest disappointment is that it just isn't very scary. Changing the lead character to a pre-pubescent girl largely robs the film of its menace for anyone who isn't of that age; the creatures' sinister motives and urges in the original were even more disturbing for being directed at an able-bodied adult. You can see why this choice seemed like a good idea - The Spiderwick Chronicles recently showed monster-filled fantasies could work as kid-flicks and still be awesomely intense - but this falls between stools and will likely disappoint everyone except easily-pleased teenagers.

It's a real shame, as the 1973 film is undeniably dated and could do with an update, but director Troy Nixey has squandered the remake's potential by sticking too rigidly with del Toro's junior-Gothic sensibilities and failing to generate enough tension with his own skills. Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark offers mindless carnage that's moderately enjoyable despite its myriad flaws but it could and should have been so much more.

Reviewed on: 07 Oct 2011
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Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark packshot
A girl starts to hear voices in the hidden basement of a mansion her father is restoring.
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Director: Troy Nixey

Writer: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins, Nigel McKeand

Starring: Katie Holmes, Bailee Madison, Guy Pearce, Alan Dale, Julia Blake, Nicholas Bell, Jack Thompson, Dylan Young, Emelia Burns, Edwina Ritchard, Gabriela Iturrizaga, Lisa N Edwards, Garry McDonald, James Mackay, Ande Orbach

Year: 2010

Runtime: 99 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US, Australia

Festivals:

Frightfest 2011

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