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September 3, 2011

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

(2010, Dir. by Troy Nixey.)

To tell the truth, I'm not wild about the original Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, the well remembered 1973 tele-movie featuring Kim Darby as a wife who opens a bricked shut furnace and unleashes some pesky critters that use their shrill little voices to terrorize her.  It's certainly a fantastic set up and features some great moments, but Darby grates me a bit and I've just never felt that the film hit its full potential to do more than just have creepy voices.  So I was cautiously anticipating this remake, whose creepy teaser trailer promised fantastic production values and a few shocks.

The influence of producer Guillermo Del Toro on the film is evident from the start, as plenty of changes have occurred to turn the 74 minute TV film into a 99 minute feature.  A young girl (Bailee Madison) takes over the role of the terrified victim, and the house with the dangerous basement becomes a huge country estate with plenty of maze-like gardens that look like leftover sets from Pan's Labyrinth.  There is also a bit more drama added to the film, thanks to the family drama that's added to the script.

Katie Holmes gets top billing as the woman who would be the step mother to young Sally (Madison), an interior designer named Kim (perhaps a throwback to Ms. Darby?) who lives at the Rhode Island estate when Sally arrives from the west coast.  Sally is here to stay with her father Alex (played by Guy Pearce), who is one of those boring characters who only exists to serve a purpose and whose first name isn't used until the middle of the third act.  He's also the winner of the first annual "Guy Pearce Bad Father Award" for being a total tool who has an "I'm your father and you will respect my jaw line as I refuse to listen to you because I have to close this deal" approach to parenting.  Sally obviously can't trust him, and since she barely knows Kim, she begins to wander and finds the voices that call to her from the basement appealing at first.

Sally's exploration of the grounds and attempts to understand her surroundings might be the most interesting part of the film, primarily due to the fantastic production design.  The large house is an imposing sight (we never seem to see more than four rooms in it, sadly), and Del Toro and director Troy Nixey frame things with an autumn tint which makes the film look ominous, even in its slower moments.  The sound design is probably the film's strong point, as the whispering voices of the taunting creatures seemed to be moving all around the theater throughout the film.  Unfortunately, the voices become repetitive and dull while used repeatedly in every scene, and there's very little character to the monsters in the walls.

I keep coming back to words like "unfortunate" and "sadly", because this version of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark seems to be all about missed chances.  The film looks and sounds like it could be a horror hit, but it just never hits the viewer correctly.  With its cheesy CGI monsters and huge gaps in logic (my favorite is when Sally clearly smashes and incapacitates one of the attackers, but then doesn't mention it when trying to plead that she's not crazy), the film is too silly to be scary.  Del Toro and Nixey attempt to make us care about this story by taking everything very seriously, but the tone of the tale doesn't match what we see on screen.  This is a Critters movie trapped in a haunted house setting, and it doesn't do enough to involve the viewer in the film. 

If we're gonna care about this film, we need better characters or we need more action or we need a few moments of levity. We don't get any of that, and the result is a horror film whose exterior gloss doesn't match its interior mindset.  There are some great visuals and creepy sound effects at times, but overuse renders them irrelevant as the film moves; which makes Don't Be Afraid of the Dark something we shouldn't be afraid of.  Just watch this preview any time you're considering the film, it'll save you 97 minutes of boredom.
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