It takes a poorly executed horror movie to show its creature in full CGI glory only minutes in, but it takes a colossally bad one to not only give away its premise at the outset, but repeat that premise only moments later in writing during the opening credits. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a film I’m hoping writer-producer Guillermo del Toro doesn’t consider a high point, does both of these things. How could a movie developed by one of modern cinema’s finest filmmakers go so horribly wrong? And how could del Toro have allowed such fatal mistakes?
I want to avoid giving you the premise. My logic for this is sound: by holding off, I’m hoping you might lose interest and decide that a nice, quiet evening playing Chinese checkers with your Aunt Flo would be more exciting than watching this film. But that wouldn’t be fair of me, now would it? Fine. So here I go, despite my better judgement: Little Sally (played with promise by Bailee Madison) finds herself uprooted from her mother’s home and brought to live in a vast estate with her remarkably obtuse father, Alex (a shockingly bland Guy Pearce), and new stepmother, Kim (Katie Holmes). Mom and dad think a change of scenery will do the depressed and medicated Sally some good, but Sally doesn’t agree. She spends her time wandering around the property looking sullen and vacant, clearly still traumatized by her parents’ divorce. It doesn’t help that Dad is more concerned with reigniting his design career than paying attention to his daughter’s cries for help. Kim tries to be supportive, but Sally resists the intrusion.
Soon, Sally begins to hear strange voices in the basement. The screws over the old fire grate unloosen themselves and tinkle to the floor. There’s scratching behind the walls. All if this is done with a modicum of style, which I appreciated. But then the assault begins, as dozens of tiny creatures that look like a cross between a mouse and Quasimodo on a bad day flood into the house. As I said, I’m not giving anything away; we’ve already seen the creatures in the opening. We’ve also been told quite plainly that the creatures feed on bone and teeth, and have a nasty habit of dragging unsuspecting children into their underground lair, which is the surest way to minimize suspense. A handyman is viciously attacked with knives, scissors, scalpels, and every other small sharp instrument in sight, which begs the question of how a creature six inches tall, with the spindliest arms I’ve ever seen, can not only wield such an instrument, but inflict mortal damage with it. The handyman survives, but the police apparently decide he’s not worthy of an investigation, or even a single strip of yellow “POLICE LINE — DO NOT CROSS” tape. Poor Sally is stalked by the creatures at every turn — in her bed, in the bath, in the basement. She discovers that light hurts them, and runs around blinding them with a Polaroid camera. Dad, of course, follows in the grand tradition of skeptical horror movie parents and doesn’t believe his daughter, instead blaming her behavior on her “illness.” When Kim becomes concerned that something is going on in the house, she turns to the local Librarian Who Knows It All, who helpfully reveals the estate’s entire history, and even produces handy — and convenient — color drawings of the creatures. The librarian’s explanation of what the creatures are would have been fascinating if the movie hadn’t already gone so far off the rails by then. There’s a climactic battle scene involving Sally, her father, her concerned stepmother, and the unwanted house guests, where everyone makes the wrong decisions and someone ends up paying with their life.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark also involves a lot of screaming — by poor Sally, Kim, and, most obnoxiously, the creatures. When the little beasties aren’t shrieking and flashing their teeth and eyes, they’re somehow talking with the seasoned professionalism of voiceover actors, their voices soft and lulling, practically soporific. I thought that if this movie doesn’t work out, some of them might have careers reading audio books. None of this is even remotely frightening.
I usually enjoy movies like this. I applaud spacious overrun houses with dank basements and shadows at every turn. I get giddy at the promise of mysterious creatures hiding out in fire grates. I especially love creatures that feed on bone and teeth. But not if it all has to be explained to me. I’ll concede that the cinematography and art direction here are top-notch, but what good are they against a movie that shows its hand before the cards are even dealt and leaves us with nothing to play for? I was reminded of Steven Spielberg’s logic to not show the shark in Jaws until the halfway point: he could maximize the audience’s expectations of what the shark would look like, thereby ensuring total suspense. I wish del Toro and director Troy Nixey had approached Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark with the same logic, instead of sucking all the fun out of it before the lights went down.
2011; starring Guy Pearce, Katie Holmes; directed by Troy Nixey; 99 min; rated R