Mark Reviews Movies

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark


1 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Troy Nixey

Cast: Bailee Madison, Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce

MPAA Rating: R (for violence and terror)

Running Time: 1:39

Release Date: 8/26/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 25, 2011

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark reveals its hand far too early and then pretends we didn't notice. It concerns a haunted estate—the sort to which we've all become accustomed, with its towering entry hall, curving staircases, moving bookshelves, hidden passageways, dank basement, and a grate within that cellar that seems to open to the very pit of Hell—and the people living in it. As expected, those folks can't figure out that the house might not be a healthy place to raise a burgeoning family.

The biggest problem comes from the creatures within the abode. They have bodies the size of rats you might find in a Chicago alleyway. They scurry to and fro on spider-like legs, keeping to the dark corners of rooms to avoid the light, which causes them to screech and gnash their teeth in pain (except when the action requires that we see them). They whisper kind or subversive words, ending the phrasing with a sinister laugh. They can also be killed by a single blow from a 7-year-old girl with a flashlight. Far from scary, these little nasties move between unintentionally funny and obnoxious.

We first meet them hiding behind that grill of the ashpit in the basement of Fallen Mill. Their eyes peek through the bars, witnessing a grisly attack by the mansion's mad owner (Garry McDonald) involving a hammer, a chisel, and his maid's teeth, and all the while, those tiny fiends' voices torment the man with the knowledge that they have his son. As a mood-setter, the sequence is chilling, turning an ordinary event (a maid answering her master's call) into something horrifying in gradual steps.

The movie shifts to the present, where Sally (Bailee Madison) is on her way to Fallen Mill, now owned by her father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes). Of course dad is focused on his work restoring the house, and Kim openly doubts her ability and desire to be a mother to someone else's child. It's a miserable existence for Sally—the kind that would be sympathetic if it were not established so bluntly.

Director Troy Nixey provides a tour of this old house with equal foreshadowing implication. Her bedroom is lit at night by a spinning nightlight that casts flashes of illumination among the engulfing shadow surrounding her bed. The library features those aforementioned sliding bookshelves—a design that cries out for later use. The mansion looks impressive at first glance, so it's unfortunate that screenwriters Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins make such little use of its layout. A winding garden maze appears once as the portal for Sally to discover that there is more to the estate than first meets the eye when she uncovers a window to the basement. The groundskeeper (Jack Thompson) pulls her away too late. Soon, Alex is admiring the new opportunity for renovation, Kim is enchanted with the artistic works of its previous tenant, and Sally is wandering too close to that grate, where voices request she lets them out.

The script relies twice (at least one time—maybe two—too many) on characters who know far more than they should. The groundskeeper is one, and he suffers an unlucky fate by the hands of the beasts he apparently swore to keep a secret. There's great amusement to be had at everyone's acceptance that he suffers an "accident" after the creatures seek revenge (His explanation to the cops probably went like this: "You see, officer, I spread out all my tools on the floor, stuck them upright, and then tripped onto them, at which point, I started rolling around over them"). The other character is a librarian (James Mackay) who rambles on and on to Kim about the former owner's art, his life, his apparent madness, and fairies. It is, naturally, every vital bit of exposition Kim needs to know to suspect that perhaps, maybe her boyfriend's daughter isn't crazy, screaming in the middle of the night about fairies trying to snatch her.

Those beasts arrive rather hastily, and their premature arrival, along with their unintimidating appearance and sometimes-silly behavior (A shot under Sally's bed sheets quickly turns comical when we see a close-up of the face of one of the creatures followed by an affected shriek), undermines the atmosphere even more than convenient plot and character devices. It doesn't help that they get exponentially smarter with each successive attempt to trap Sally, implying that they're either quick learners or lazy.

The penultimate showdown between Sally and the itty-bitty beasts, centered around a fancy dinner and a camera with a flash, seems to acknowledge the fairies' inherent goofiness. Then Don't Be Afraid of the Dark reverts back to its tired scare game of cheap startles and cheaper contrivances (Knowing full well what's happening, the family attempts to amble their way to safety), and no, it isn't frightening.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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