In this economy, a bargain-priced mansion sounds like a dream. However, every film aficionado knows that when the place is called Blackwood Manor, has a history of mysterious disappearances, and hasn’t been bought in decades, it’s most likely a conduit for evil. But there’s always an oblivious family ready to set up shop and in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, that familial unit consists of Alex (Guy Pearce), a divorced husband who hopes to restore the place and later resell it for profit, Sally (Bailee Madison), his troubled daughter, and Kim (Katie Holmes), the girlfriend who’s insecure in her role as a replacement mom. And Alex, motivated by the prospect of making a pretty penny, chooses to ignore the obvious indicators of an otherworldly presence: An ominous caretaker, Harris (Jack Thompson), who tries to warn the family of the house’s terrifying secret without explicitly doing so, and Mrs. Underhill (Julia Blake), the foreboding maid. Rather he, unintentionally, allows Sally to be haunted by a nest of ancient demons that feed on the teeth of young children.
Despite the character’s young age, Sally is a deeply troubled individual. Not even in her teens, she’s already on antidepressants and forever harbors the fear that her mother has abandoned her (strengthened only by her unwillingness to answer Sally’s phone-calls). With that, she makes Kim, who genuinely tries to nurture the child, feel like an outsider, shunning her attempts at bonding. But despite her antisocial and closeted behavior around other people, she becomes accepting of the creatures in Blackwood Manor. And when her parents hire a professional, a nameless psychiatrist (Nicholas Bell), who asks Sally what her favorite color is, she responds “black.” It might be just me looking too deep into a run of the mill horror, but, in my opinion, this is symbolic of the interpersonal bond between our chief protagonist and the hellspawns that haunt her. Whereas Alex dismisses her cries as just nightmares or the byproducts of an overactive imagination and almost forces her to become friendly with Kim, not understanding the pain that accompanies her mother’s leave, the creatures, like Sally, are attached to places where they don’t belong and, for the most part, confine themselves to the shadows. But at the same time, like most humanly fears, they taunt the child and serve only to eat her alive — in this case, quite literally. Madison, who has made a name for herself with appearances in “House M.D.” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” is believable, has chemistry with both Pierce and Holmes, and plays to her character’s strengths and weakness effortlessly, becoming the obvious standout in this remake.
The film’s based on a 1973 made-for-TV thriller of the same name. That work is reportedly the inspiration behind Guillermo del Toro’s dream to become a filmmaker and the director has admitted that it influenced his distinct style. And so, with only love at heart, del Toro produces and co-wrote (Matthew Robins is the other screenwriter) Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. But instead of taking to the helm himself, the acclaimed filmmaker allows newcomer, Troy Nixey, the honor. And, for the most part, there’s nothing wrong with Nixey’s direction. The casting is spot-on and all of the cast-members perform to the best of their abilities, he handles characterization well and everyone has a distinct voice and is fully-fleshed out. The creatures, twisted takes on the loved tooth fairy, are also executed nicely and are interesting enough to carry the film from start to finish. What’s stopping the film from being a respectable blockbuster? It’s the complete lack of scares.
“Pan’s Labyrinth” pushed the envelope, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, not so much. Robbins and del Toro restrain from breaking the conventions of standard haunted house fare. The setup, a grandiose mansion, and the demons, which are small and agile enough to hide in small nooks and crannies, complement each other. The heroine, Sally, being a tormented soul, is likeable. Alex and Kim are both conflicted but also want the best for the child. As a narrative, it’s all there. Unfortunately, the film falters because of its obvious horror elements. Save for an the incredibly tense third-act, the creatures, which kill by storming their victims and attacking them with whatever weapons they can muster up, attack in predictable waves and are easily defeated by flashes of light. With so many opportunities to strike, why do they wait until the last twenty-or-so minutes for their assault? That answer’s simple (and has nothing to do with their mysterious metabolisms): The template demands it. Like many horror films, the shit hits the fan during the last moments, and Nixey’s debut is no different. The film’s title warns us about not being scared but that’s superfluous . . . for the majority of this production, you’ll be hoping for a few nightly terrors.