- Rated R
- Buy the Blu-ray
All photos © FilmDistrict
Reviewed by Will Harris
here are plenty of reasons to look at the description of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” and suspect that it isn’t worth your time: it’s more or less a remake of a TV movie from the 1970s; it’s been ready to roll since late last year (I actually saw it at the Virginia Film Festival back in November 2010); and, perhaps the most concerning bit of all, it’s a horror flick produced by a notable horror director but actually directed by someone else. This last one wouldn’t seem to be such a danger sign, but, seriously, it’s gotten to the point where seeing the words “Executive Producer Sam Raimi” in the credits is almost enough to keep me out of the theater.
But, then, Guillermo Del Toro is no Sam Raimi. For one thing, he doesn’t tend to attach his name to nearly as many films, and when he does, you can almost always either see what drew him to the material or, in a best case scenario, actually see his sensibilities in the final product. Fortunately, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is one of those cases – no doubt because Del Toro actually co-wrote the screenplay, along with his former “Mimic” collaborator Matthew Robins – and provides some old-school scares that may well leave you listening for skittering sounds every night for the rest of your life.
Young Sally (Bailee Madison) has been pawned off on her father, Alex (Guy Pearce), by her never-seen-on-screen mother, who ostensibly wants to see if a change of lifestyle will help relieve Sally’s ceaseless anxieties, though we’re led to suspect via context clues that another big reason why she’s shipped off Sally is that she’s too busy with her hoity-toity lifestyle to have time to raise a child. Alex has two big introductions for his daughter: his new girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes), whom she instantly dislikes simply because she’s not her mother, and their new house. Actually, it’s more of a mansion, and it’s far from new: known as Blackwood Manor, it was formerly owned by a late 19th century artist – named Blackwood, naturally – who, not long after the disappearance of his young son, vanished mysteriously himself.
It’s no mystery for us, however, as the grisly prologue of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” has already revealed what happened to both Blackwood and his child, which means that as soon as Sally steps onto the screen, we are immediately fearful of her future fate. Turns out that some of the previous tenants of Blackwood Manor have been anxiously awaiting new arrivals in the hopes that they might be released from their imprisonment below the building, and Sally’s just the person to help them out of their predicament. Whispering to the little girl, they convince her that they’re her friends and ask her to let them out to play… and, unfortunately, she does.
Although the events of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” follow a relatively predictable story arc, with the dark-dwellers tormenting Sally and wreaking havoc on the house while everyone believes she’s the one causing the trouble, the proceedings are filled with plenty of scares and many moments which will make you squirm in your seat, most of which come courtesy of the skittering little creatures. Pearce and Holmes both do well enough in their roles – he’s single-minded and skeptical, she’s sympathetic – but it’s Madison who’s ultimately required to carry the film, and she does so quite capably. It’s also notable that this is a rare horror film where, at least for the most part, the characters’ actions and decisions are relatively reasonable, which is to say that you won’t be screaming, “Why did you do that?” You’ll just be screaming, period.