Co-written/produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by Troy Nixey, ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ embraces many of the same elements as del Toro’s other films, crafting a narrative which combines both traditional gothic horror and childlike fantasy. But sadly, unlike a usual del Toro project, there is a noticeable absence in everything from captivating characters to memorising practical effects/creatures, resulting in a film that feels like a mostly copy-and-paste effort beyond one or two interesting ideas.
Plot Summary: After being sent to live with her father and his new girlfriend at their recently renovated manor, the previous home of the long-missing painter: ‘Emerson Blackwood’. Young ‘Sally’ begins to hear ominous voices emanating from the basement’s ash-pit, soon leading her to discover the cause of the painter’s disappearance…
Taking heavy inspiration from the classic H.P. Lovecraft short story: ‘The Rats in the Walls.’ ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ is actually a remake of a low-budget 1973 TV film, as the now-iconic director Guillermo del Toro has stated in the past that he was terrified of the film when he first watched it as a child, later inspiring him to reimagine the mostly-unknown horror flick. Yet even with a much larger-budget and a more well-known cast, the film is still quite underwhelming when it comes to both its scares and story, as the film’s narrative follows a formula almost identical to many other modern horrors.
All of the performances throughout the film aren’t anything overly impressive, as whilst Katie Holmes does try her best to portray a young girl witnessing sights that no one else believes. Her character: ‘Sally’ (similar to the rest of the film’s characters) receives very limited characterisation, which does make many of the scenes revolving around the family-dynamic far less entertaining. Then there is also ‘Sally’s father and his girlfriend: ‘Kim’ portrayed by Guy Pearce and Bailee Madison respectively, and although Madison gives a serviceable performance, Pearce may give one of the weakest performances of his career here. As ‘Sally’s father: ‘Alex,’ always shows little concern or remorse when it comes to his daughter, making the character immensely difficult to resonate with.
The cinematography by Oliver Stapleton is very grand in its execution, allowing for a large number of wide-shots, some of which even flow smootly-around the various rooms of the manor. But it’s the film’s colour palette which is most worth noting, as the film utilises much more red and yellow than many other modern horrors, which is a pleasant change in terms of visuals as the more vibrant colours reflect the manor’s elegant design, which is probably one of the most visually striking ‘haunted houses’ in recent memory, with even the manor’s front entrance having a beautiful carving of an old oak tree merged into the multi-coloured glass.
Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders provide the original score for the film, which similar to the film’s cinematography, gives the story a much more epic feel. As the heavy orchestral score could’ve easily been taken from any classic gothic horror, lending itself effectively to many scenes aside from a couple of generic tracks. The film often also features some fantastically creepy sound design, as the film’s creatures continuously speak to ‘Sally’ using their ghostly whispering voices, which seemingly echo throughout the usually empty corridors of the manor.
Although many of del Toro’s other outings do provide plenty of wonderful practical effects to gaze at, usually creating an array of unsettling and memorable creatures, ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ takes another (less appealing) route to its monsters. As the film’s creatures are brought to life almost entirely though CG effects, which not only makes some shots appear slightly dated, but also manages to take away from nearly all of the film’s tense moments. Additionally, the film’s creature designs aren’t all that menacing, as despite the idea of evil fairytale monsters being quite unique (as the creatures are later revealed to be a sinister incarnation of tooth-fairies). The creature’s extremely small-size does make them feel very unthreatening even if it is a nice change-of-pace over having one large entity, as the film never does enough with its miniature antagonists regardless of what knives/tools they arm themselves with.
All in all, ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ is a film that is regrettably just not worth its short runtime. As while I admire the effort to combine famed fairytale stories with a chilling atmosphere, the predominantly poor performances and numerous unexplored concepts leave the film simply another bland horror flick with a surprisingly weak screenplay by del Toro to-boot, especially when compared to much of his other work. Still, with all that said, I feel that Troy Nixey does deserve another shot in the director’s chair someday, as since this film’s initial release, he actually hasn’t worked on any other projects, which is unfortunate, as I do believe he does have some talent as a filmmaker when looking at this film’s merits. Final Rating: high 3/10.