Title: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
Director: Troy Nixey
Starring: Bailee Madison, Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Jack Thompson, Julia Blake
Haunted house films are back in full force. In April we got the beautifully modest and wildly enjoyable Insidious from James Wan and now Guillermo del Toro and Co. are giving the subgenre a go with Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. While the two are rooted in entirely different core concepts, they do have quite a bit in common, namely child stars vs. evil entities, eerily warm yet threatening tones, fantastic visuals and the fact that they’re both incredibly frightening, exhilarating and entertaining all in one. Haunted house films are officially two for two in 2011.
When Sally’s (Bailee Madison) mother decides it’s time to hand her over to her father, Alex (Guy Pearce), she’s sent from Los Angeles to Rhode Island where she’ll call the old Blackwood Manor home. Alex, an architect desperately in need of a career comeback, and his girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holms), an interior decorator, are calling the place home for the time being, as they’re working to restore the house and sell it for a pretty penny and ego boost.
In the midst of a snooping session, Sally discovers a room in the Blackwood Manor, a basement her father never knew existed. After knocking down a wall and finding the basement door, Sally, Alex and Kim investigate and discover the famous artist Emerson Blackwood’s studio. Alex is fascinated with the new space and Kim with the work Mr. Blackwood left behind, but Sally winds up enraptured with something else, something connected to Emerson Blackwood’s disappearance over a hundred years ago.
Have you ever misplaced something and had someone tell you, ‘Well, it couldn’t have just wandered off on its own?’ Well, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is somewhat connected to that concept and offers a creepy explanation for bumps in the night, vanishing personal belongings and just about anything else you can’t attribute to normal human behavior in your home. It’s this all-too-relatable scenario that lets the film really get inside your head.
From there, co-writers del Toro and Matthew Robbins expand the basic premise to a point that practically creates a sort of subculture, almost along the lines of vampires and werewolves. No, it’s not quite as extensive or relatable, as the creatures in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark aren’t humanized or glorified in the least, but even without getting inside their heads, the film offers a firm sense of their history and what they want. The very first scene takes place in the Blackwood Manor on the very day Emerson vanishes. While the moment does offer a significant amount of information in terms of what Emerson was battling, the situation is presented in a vague enough fashion so that we don’t quite know what we’re dealing with, making the next few scenes all the more terrifying.
Plus, talk about dramatic irony. Director Troy Nixey uses the standard horror set-up, delivering an especially disturbing opening scene, making it even more nerve-wracking to see little Sally walk right into this house of horrors. Not only is Madison quite adorable, but the character herself snags all of your sympathy from the moment she steps on screen. She’s a seemingly sad kid being bounced between her divorced parents; how can you not feel for her? Rubbing it in even further is Madison herself as at just 9-years-old during production, she’s as talented as they come. As she’s the center of this story, without a stellar Sally, this supernatural tale wouldn’t have been believable in the least. However, Nixey found a young actress capable of selling it big time, making the experience unnervingly authentic.
The adult characters suffer the slightest bit as Madison steals the show. Both Pearce and Holmes, make for endearing parental figures, Pearce the inexperienced father and Holmes the fill-in desperately seeking Sally’s approval. Between their intimate relationship, their work partnership and this ill-structured family they’re trying to create, their connection is far more unique than with most on-screen couples. While Pearce fades into the background at a point, putting one foot in the trap of the guy who continually denies Sally’s claims regardless of the fact that there’s so much proof, Holmes steps up big time, considering Sally’s accusations and building an intriguing relationship with her in the process. Sure, Kim tiptoes around exposing the truth a bit longer than necessary, but it does give the film the chance to build additional suspense before the grand finale.
From a technical standpoint, the standout elements of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark are the evil creatures. Nixey takes his sweet time exposing them and when we finally get a good look at what’s been whispering to Sally, the visuals are surprisingly satisfying. They’re frightening, but come with a hint of vulnerability, making them all the more believable. In terms of other scare tactics, Nixey sticks to the book using tracking shots and eerie reveals to create a powerfully ominous tone. Sure you always know danger is on the horizon, but Nixey manages to conceal the threat just enough that when it finally comes, despite having your guard up, it still makes you jump.
Overall, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is an excellent blend of sheer terror and frightening fun. You might feel the need to check under the covers before getting in bed after seeing this one, but ultimately, it doesn’t stick with you on a disturbing level, rather simply because it’s a blast to watch.