‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,’ is more beautiful than frightful

Katie Holmes in 'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark'

Director Troy Nixey makes his feature film directorial debut with Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark which unfortunately leaves some to be desired.  The horror genre is dominated mostly two types of horror films:   the cynical, nearly pornographic overly greusome types, that involve a bit more of a comedic approach and the original, classical-scare-you-without-gore type that references those from years past.  Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, however lies somewhere in between as Nixey tries valiantly to pay homage to classic horror/thriller directors of yesterday, like Alfred Hitchcock, but his film never actually materializes beyond mediocrity and save for a few surprise moments, the horror itself is mostly laughable and campy.

When the film was first announced with Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) associated, expectations for brilliance flared.   What was delivered turned out to have key Del Toro elements, such as the mystique (about fairies and Koi fish) and imagination, but lacked emotional depth and character arc.  It was semi-sort of boring and predictable as a “haunted house” story that’s been told thousands of times, of which only about ten percent get it right, as in Insidious from earlier this year.  Perhaps it was the monotone performance of Guy Pearce as “Alex,” whose character is superficially created or maybe it was the stagnant characters in general accompanied by awkward “who says that” dialogue.

Artistically and cinematically, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is beautiful.  It has a very clean, polished look.  The lighting is great, the artwork is good (those little gremlin-esque fairies are pretty creepy) and there are those moments of gore, that at times does read a bit campy.  There are some really nice, imaginitive and magical moments like the scene when Sally (Bailee Madison) first discovers the garden in the back yard.  On the subject of Sally though, her character is a bit irritable – she hears these whispering creatures and that intrigues her. Then she sets them free and suddenly begins to fear them?  Wouldn’t any normal person feel afraid of anything ominously calling their name, especially a child?  This one of the biggest flaws in the film because Sally’s backstory is never truly disclosed – the horror would have been more effective had she had a history of anxiety, depression or schizophrenia because, afterall, she does see a psychiatrist in the film and another is referenced from back in LA, but why.

The little monsters’ motives are quite clear from the way the movie starts, which is an interesting beginning that happens just before some pretty nice, fun, artistic credits.  It’s set up like a classic horror and there is a “teeth” scene to divulge some exposition that gains the cringes of the audience.  The beginning, albeit a bit hokey, has rising  horror and suspense that peak, until the film’s final climactic push.  In fact, everything seems to be at its best, just before the opening credits, with only the artistic direction and cinematography maintaining their prominance afterward.  Even as far as the acting, Edwina Ritchard “Housekeeper” and Garry McDonald “Blackwood” give two of the most interesting and best acted character performances.  Perhaps, the only other potential runners up for best actor/actress in this feature are Katie Holmes as “Kim” or Julia Blake as “Mrs. Underhill,” but neither of them truly give great performances as they too, like Guy Pearce, fall flat.  However, Holmes at the beginning seems different than Holmes at the end, she probably gains the most in terms of endearment and character.

The classical elements are there; mirrors, talking stuffed animals, stairs, libraries, thunderstorms and so on, the music is suspenseful (nice job Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders) and the cinematography is quite nice (another nice job goes to Oliver Stapleton), but the writing lacks depth and the performances detract from the believability and horror.  Perhaps it would have been best had about half of the lines the characters speak been cut.  While there are some moments of surprise that made people jump, it’s safe to say that if you watch Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark you’ll be watching for more of the artistic and clasically referential elements presented, rather than for the horror itself.  Maybe this would scare a five or six year old, but I doubt its ability to frighten adults.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is rated R for violence and terror and runs 99 minutes.

Grade:  C-



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