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Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)"
4 stars

Produced during a minor glut of horror-themed made-for-TV movies running the gamut of quality from an unquestioned classic like “Duel” (the first major work from the then-unknown Steven Spielberg) to utter nonsense along the lines of the infamous “Killdozer” (think “Christine” with a bulldozer. . .better yet, don’t), the original 1973 version of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is one of those films best appreciated when seen at a young enough age to appreciate and accept the notion of creepy little monsters living behind the walls of your house while managing to forgive the goofy plotting and necessarily cheapo special effects. Guillermo del Toro was one of those people who was cheerfully traumatized by it at an early age and one can find traces of its influence in many of his own subsequent projects, such as “Mimic” and the great “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Now, nearly 40 years after the original first aired, del Toro has used his considerable influence to produce and co-write a big-screen remake in order to creep out a new generation of moviegoers. While the end result is not exactly a masterpiece by most standards, it is still an agreeably creepy affair that outdoes the original in nearly every respect and serves as a welcome relief to the glut of gory sequels and reboots that has largely come to define the horror genre in recent years.

The film takes place almost entirely within the walls of a rambling and spooky Rhode
Island mansion and after a nasty prologue that effectively sets up the fact that
something is not quite right, it returns to the present day as little Sally Hirst
(Bailee Madison) is being shipped off to live with her father, Alex (Guy Pearce) and his
new girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes), in said mansion while he renovates it in the hopes of
selling it for a tidy profit. With her father’s attentions devoted entirely towards the
restoration that he has sunk all of his money into and not wanting anything to do with
Kim despite her efforts to try to be friends with her, Sally begins to explore the
grounds and discovers a hidden basement complete with a mysteriously sealed fireplace.
Despite warnings from the grizzled old handyman (Jack Thompson) to stay away from it,
Sally sneaks back down into the basement and hears strange voices coming from the
fireplace asking her to set them free and offering their friendship in exchange. She gets
it partially open but before anything else can happen, she is interrupted by her father
and taken back upstairs.

Nevertheless, Sally managed to open just enough of the door to unleash a horde of nasty
little creatures that lurk in the dark and before long, the house is beset with a number
of strange incidents--Alex’s razor goes missing, a dress of Kim’s is slashed to ribbons,
a teddy bear that Kim gave to Sally as a peace offering is destroyed and the handyman
suffers a gruesome “accident” while attempting to reseal the fireplace. Inevitably, Sally
is blamed for everything except for the incident involving the handyman but her
terminally preoccupied dad just assumes that she is acting out over being uprooted and
because of the presence of Kim. Kim, on the other hand, slowly begins to believe Sally’s
claims that something else is responsible and begins delving into the curious history of
the mansion’s previous owner (the guy seen in the aforementioned prologue) and discovers
that his rantings about little monsters living in the house are strikingly similar to
Sally’s. After an elaborate dinner party goes disastrously wrong, Kim decides that it is
time to get Sally out of the house for good. Of course, the creatures have other ideas
and after cutting off the power to the house, they set upon Sally, Kim and Alex in an
effort to make sure that they never leave the place again.

Those of you who remember seeing the original will recall that while del Toro and
co-writer Matthew Robbins (whose own genre bonafides include work on the screenplays for
“Mimic” and “Dragonslayer,” the latter of which he also directed) have stuck to the basic
parameters of the story, they have also made a number of fundamental changes to the
material as well. The key difference here is that while the original’s Sally was an adult
(played by Kim Darby) who had inherited the house from her recently deceased grandmother,
the character has been reconceived here as a young girl in the midst of so much internal
emotional turmoil thanks to inattentive parents and the presence of Kim that there are
times when the monsters seem to be the least of her problems. While some may look at the
inclusion of a young girl as a cheap ploy on del Toro’s part to subliminally remind
viewers of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” it actually turns out to be a smart play after all because
of the way that it cleverly repositions the story from just another monster mash into
something akin to a modern-day Grimm’s fairy tale. Yes, the sight of a young child in
jeopardy is certainly quease-inducing to some people but the movie does an effective job
of handling the material in a way that provokes chills without ever coming across as
overly exploitative. At the same time, it doesn’t pull any punches either in the terror
department--despite del Toro’s protestations over the film being slapped with an “R”
rating on the basis that much of the horror is suggested rather than shown, there is more
than enough on-screen nastiness to have most viewers squirming in their seats.

After having seen one genre exercise after another that has buckled under the weight of
trying to shock and amaze viewers with gruesome gore and lavish, effects-filled set
pieces strung together with the flimsiest narratives imaginable, it is refreshing to see
a film like “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” that tries to quietly goose its viewers with
tension and atmosphere instead. Debuting director Troy Nixey does a good job of
delivering the goods in a sensible and straightforward manner that rarely calls attention
to itself and is all the better as a result--while one cannot ignore the obvious
influence of del Toro on the material, Nixey doesn’t allow it to dominate the
proceedings. The performances are also above average as well--as the little girl at the
heart of the tale, Bailee Madison is spirited and charming and completely convincing as a
kid both terrified and curious about the strange things going on around her while Katie
Holmes shakes off the lethargy that has dragged down too many of her recent performances
and turns in her best work in quite a while. From a technical standpoint, everything is
top-notch with elements from the cinematography to the production design to the score
coming together to create a mood of ever-growing uneasiness that holds firm even during
the scenes set in bright daylight in which nothing overtly terrifying is going on. The
only real stumble arrives when the film finally relents and allows the creatures to
emerge from the shadows to be seen in all their grisly glory. Sure, they are icky and
loathsome as all get out but the film does such an effective job of establishing them
simply through shadows, furtive movements and the bizarre sounds that they make (be sure
to see this in a theater where the sound system is firing on all cylinders) that when
they do finally show their faces (for lack of a better term), the reality of their
appearance can’t help but come up short in comparison.

Aside from that, “Don’t Be Afraid of the dark” is a smart and effective thriller that gets under the skin and sets up creepy camp for the next 90-odd minutes. Sure , it isn’t quite a classic by any means and it may not spark anything in future filmmakers who have been exposed practically since birth to the classics of the genre in the way that the original did in del Toro. However, it does do a very good job of what it sets out to do, which is to send enough chills down the spines of viewers to make air conditioning in the multiplex superfluous. As artistic achievements go, this may well be a relatively minor one but after a summer filled with heavily-hyped items that have thoroughly failed to achieve their entertainment goals, it is nice to end the season with one that does.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=21151&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/25/11 22:40:06
[printer] printer-friendly format  
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

User Comments

9/12/17 morris campbell dont be afraid of watching something else it sux 1 stars
2/10/13 Langano Wow, what a shit film. One of the worst I've seen. I actually tossed the dvd into the trash 1 stars
11/08/12 Sam Spade script full of mistakes finally ruins a fine production 3 stars
1/24/12 mr.mike Slight improvement on the TV-movie, which was'nt great to begin with. 3 stars
1/16/12 action movie fan good sets and effects but do be afraid of a dull silly screenplay. 2 stars
8/29/11 Sean Davis Was extremely disappointed. There was nothing to be afraid of! 2 stars
8/28/11 Jonathan Sullivan I think we saw different movies :-P 2 stars
8/28/11 Louis Blyskal Great 4 stars
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  26-Aug-2011 (R)
  DVD: 03-Jan-2012


  DVD: 03-Jan-2012

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