Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark – 2011
Directed by Troy Nixey
Starring Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison, Jack Thompson
Written by Guillermo Del Toro, Matthew Robbins based on the original story by Nigel McKeand
Guillermo Del Toro has a fascinating sense of what makes something scary. Each of the films he has written and/or directed have a variety of astonishing creatures. Some are awe-inspiring, some adorable, some menacing and some are quite ambiguous. There is no question which type is on display in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. From the opening moments where the Lord of Blackwood Manor is convinced to perform heinous acts to recover a kidnapped son. The man believes that by sacrificing others, the creatures will relinquish their hostage. He is mistaken.
Forward to the present day, we see Alex Hirst, with his girlfriend, Kim, waiting for Alex’s daughter, Sally, arriving via airplane. Sally’s birth mother and Alex had determined a change of pace might help young Alex recover from the malaise she is now suffering. This lends itself into myriad potential for cliché, most of which are employed in this film. There is a difference in hitting clichés and making them work for you. Like Fright Night, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a remake. Unlike the first film, this one improves upon the original in every way.
The director, Troy Nixey, is a first timer, hand-picked by Guillermo after he submitted a short film called Latchkey’s Lament to Del Toro for review. Guillermo was impressed enough to give him the keys to this medium budget B-Flick with 2 A-Listers (Pearce and Holmes) riding in the coattails of a young and very talented actress (Madison).
The result is a better film than the plot deserved. Madison has vastly more experience than her 12 years would have one believe, and she makes exceptional use of it. Along with Nixey, she shows that a child actor is most effective when they are not geniuses or smarter than all the adults. The back and forth between her, her father and Kim is one of the strengths of the film, as each of them bring something to their situation to the mix that the communication issues more authentic. Sally’s curiosity, regret and then abject fear is excellently drawn by Madison. One has much to look forward to in her acting future, should she decide to pursue it.
That Katie Holmes has been out of the spotlight for so long (4 films and a mini-series since 2005’s Batman Begins) is quite a shame. She has procured a real amount of depth as she has gotten older. She projects an uncommon mixture of intelligence and compassion as Kim. This allows for a natural bond to form between Kim and Sally.
For his part, Pearce brings a realism to perhaps the most thankless role of the film. He is supposed to stay dense the longest, allowing the characters who are more frail in stature to figure it out and be imperiled due to his willfully stubborn ignorance. That he is able to project the frustration of carrying the financial load so effectively allows him to not seem so much as uncaring as preoccupied. As a father, I can recall many times where I let the big picture get in the way of the smaller, more important details, like why I am doing it in the first place. Pearce shows how I feel in those times. A lesser actor would have made Alex an idiot, or worse, an idiot windbag.
The directing of Don’t Be Afraid… is sublime. The use of shadows and sounds of scurrying are almost unparalleled and exceedingly creepy. These tactics are employed confidently, as the special effects shots of the menace are on par with anything Del Toro has ever done. It goes to show the talent of true direction, versus the derivative nature of 3D in the hands of less competent directors. While there is somewhat less gore in this film than many PG-13 films, it still was rated R, due to the fact that it is legitimately scary. Del Toro’s use of the works of Arthur Machen, even more than that of the writer of the original story, helps to give the film a true supernatural feeling about legends that we long have accepted, but never truly thought about. Where Nixey’s influence starts and Del Toro’s ends is very difficult to figure. That is the best thing about it.
The only thing that keeps this from being a classic is that well-worn paths are just a little too often employed, however effectively. The last act is incredibly awkward, until an epilogue brings a twist that puts everything once more on its ear. If you are not sure what is happening, try using subtitles. This film is a must for anyone who appreciates Del Toro. Indeed, it is a must for anyone who wants a great scare.
(****1/2 out of *****)