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‘Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark,’ But Fear Its Denizens

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
August 25, 2011

Haunted house movies are driven by the things that reside in the dark corners, both of the house and of our minds. The moody mansion of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has plenty of those corners, and plenty of sharp-toothed beasties that lurk in them. Their target is a withdrawn little girl, Sally (Bailee Madison), who has just been sent to live with her father, Alex (Guy Pearce), and his girlfriend, Kim (Katie Homes). He’s an architect, she’s an interior designer, and they’re restoring the old Blackwood mansion in the hopes of getting on the cover of Architectural Digest. But when they open up a hidden basement, they accidentally unleash the forces that did in the previous owner and his family decades earlier.

These evil little pixies, whose odd craving for children’s teeth is explained as a basis for tooth fairy mythology, become more and more brazen in their attempts to capture Sally, eventually growing into a constant onscreen presence during the latter portion of the film. The film’s greatest weakness, in fact, may be that they’re too present. Eventually, too little is left to the imagination to do what it does best: fill in the gaps with visions far more frightening than anything a filmmaker could put onscreen.

Chalk that up to screenwriter and producer Guillermo del Toro’s fascination with monsters, and how he and his design teams can take nightmares and make them concrete and palpable to an audience. That approach worked wonders for a film like del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, which relies on the believability of an intricate alternate reality, a fantasy underworld where elaborate and detailed creatures supported the story. There’s no denying that his latest monsters are imaginative and detailed creations, but the haunted house-style story is hampered by his desire to show them off.

Del Toro, with co-writer Matthew Robbins, adapted the story from a 1973 TV horror movie that was a little cheesy, highly melodramatic and had a handful of genuinely creepy moments. He brought in first-time director Troy Nixey to take the helm, but the film still feels like del Toro’s through and through, from his addition of the little girl, who doesn’t appear in the original, to the monsters of mythical derivation to the heavy dose of fantasy and gorgeous set design that go along with the horror.

These heightened production values and a much more sinister sense of dread throughout are significant improvements on the original, without completely abandoning the classical horror tone. Nixey shows a knack for using inky darkness and gloomy shadows to great effect. It’s a shame that he undermines that by resorting to cheaper gotcha-style scares too often, then lays all of his cards on the table by displaying the creatures so prominently.

For storytellers with such obviously keen visual senses, there’s far too much of an emphasis on telling over showing here. Just as the movie is heading toward what was nearly a truly terrifying climax, the action is held up by an inexplicably clunky scene in a library, where Kim has been sent by the house’s near-death handyman, who chooses to use the last words he can muster to send her to the archives instead of confirming her worst fears about the house. There’s little that’s less scary than a librarian delivering a too-tidy lecture on the mythological basis of evil, yet that’s exactly where the movie meanders off at the most inopportune time.

The unknown is always the most frightening thing in any great horror movie; the dark is exactly where the things we’re afraid of have to live. Shining a light on the monsters of this movie literally sends them running; unfortunately, the filmmakers also banish the film’s scares with too much illumination. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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