MOVIE REVIEW: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
Beware those houses of the unholy! Despite countless signs of imminent danger, the moronic adult characters in Troy Nixey's remake of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark never heed this classic Horror film warning. Instead, struggling architect Alex (Guy Pierce) and his assistant/girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) cast a blind eye to the dangerous phenomena tormenting Alex's daughter, Sally (Bailee Madison), an inquisitive and lonely young girl who moves into the labyrinthian mansion her father is renovating. Sally's appearance sparks a supernatural reign of terror, and no matter how bad the situation gets her genuine pleas for help are attributed to an overactive imagination. Narrative cliches like this prove Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is just another example of numskull adults hiding their heads in the sand.
Sally's fateful curiosity sets a very familiar haunted house story in motion. One day, while walking the ghostly grounds she discovers a hidden basement housing a Pandora's Box of golem-like monsters. Cries and whispers start emanating from the darkness, and what first seems like an intriguing fantasy soon turns into Sally's worst nightmare. A missing razor, shredded clothing, and billowing sheets are potent promises of violence to come, and Sally is often left alone to face her miniature tormentors with only her wits to fend off their advances. One cramped moment inside a bathroom is particularly brutal; Sally must battle a legion of creatures amidst a slippery tile floor and a host of sharp edged weapons, hinting at producer Guillermo del Toro's brand of outlandish violence. Still, most of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark lacks this kind of innovative severity and settles for inane jump-scares.
Nixey does display a keen sense of space during many of the interior scenes, lingering on the intricate set design for moody effect. Beautifully layered wood carvings define each wall, dimly lit stairwells seem to stretch on forever, and each antiquated room becomes a kind cob-webbed tomb for Sally. Pipes, vents, and doorways evoke the creepy anatomy of the house itself, swollen varicose veins potentially bursting with evil. But the leaden character conflicts (divorce, parenting, adolescence) are so overstuffed and obvious much of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark turns into a tired merry-go-round of bitter arguments, blatant dismissals, and idle threats. When Alex and Kim do finally realize the figments of Sally's imagination are knife-wielding devils hellbent on fulfilling some trite mythological prophecy, its far too late to take their cries for help seriously.
Lost in the shuffle of all this adult pomp and circumstance is Sally, whose earnest dedication to exploration becomes a twisted narrative device rather than a trait to be celebrated. Maybe if del Toro had taken the time to direct Don't Be Afraid of the Dark himself, he would have given Sally's flair for discovery a little more respect. Or maybe not.