Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark
Del Toro-produced chiller is big on style but a little light on substance
This year's FrightFest opener Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark, starring Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce, may not have been directed by Guillermo Del Toro, but the producer's mark is all over it.
First-timer Troy Nixey helms this remake of a 1973 TV movie, telling the story of a young girl, Sally (Bailee Madison), sent to live with her father Alex (Pearce) and his new partner Kim (Holmes). They are engaged in the renovation of the old house they have moved into, and Sally soon starts hearing hushed, sinister voices calling her from behind a secure door in the basement.
The creepy atmosphere that pervades almost every scene is pure Del Toro, with gothic artwork a big visual theme. There is a recurring use of fairy tale imagery, particularly in the disturbing murals which decorate some of the later sets. The house itself is like another character, it's dark corners, forbidding alcoves and twisting staircases promoting an unease which the audience will feel almost immediately.
The cast do a good job overall, with Holmes putting in a decent shift in a fairly standard horror role, getting the viewer onside well enough, particularly in her scenes with Madison as Kim tries to win the young girls trust. She leads the film well, but young Madison is the highlight here. Equally able to deal with the domestic scenes and her many sequences of peril, her Sally makes a great emotional anchor for the audience as they sympathise with both her family upheaval and the more immediate danger she faces later in the film. If there is one cast member who feels underused though, it is Pearce. It is strange that an actor of his calibre is reduced to little more than a fairly typical horror film "sceptical authority figure" role. His is a typically classy turn, but you can't help feeling that the script could give him a little more to do.
For all the unsettling atmosphere that the film builds throughout its runtime, it does unfortunately fail to deliver on one crucial level - scares. As much as it is refreshing not to just be dished up jump after jump, one or two more might have helped the film stay with us more, because as it is, Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark sadly didn't leave us sleeping with the lights on. The buckets of atmosphere are fantastic, but the unrelenting tension would have been even more effective had a couple more individually frightening moments been thrown at us. It should also be said that once we meet the source of the voices, they are pretty underwhelming, and despite some neat effects work you do get the impression that they would be far more memorable if we never saw them.
Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark, then, is a slickly made, well acted and subtly creepy horror film, which is sadly lacking in the way of out-and-out scares. Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable story, with an emotional core it's hard not to get involved with, and manages to remain exciting enough during its tight 100 minutes to be well worth a watch. Clearly made by filmmakers with a love of the genre, this will be enjoyed by horror fans, although it won't be causing any nightmares.