The horror genre just might be one of the most overused and abused genres in all of filmdom. Usually horror films are very cheap to make and easy to sell, so a lot of filmmakers use the genre as a jump off in order to get their careers going. And as a result, the movie going public is assaulted with dozens of just terrible horror movies every year, each one worse than the last – it has gotten to the point where mediocre horror movies get over praised just because they aren’t total garbage (to wit).
Fortunately, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is not one of the hunks of crap that usually washes up on the shores of our movie theaters. Instead it is a well-made and very creepy film about those nasty little goblins that we were all afraid of when we were children, those nasty critters that live in the shadows and under our bed and in the vents and gave us nightmares.
Specifically this is the story of Sally (Bailee Madison, Brothers, Conviction), a 10-year old girl who is depressed because she finds herself bouncing between her mother in Los Angeles and her father (Guy Pearce, The Proposition) on the east coast. The movie starts with Sally arriving at her father’s new huge creepy mansion which he is restoring in hopes of landing the home on the cover of Architectural Digest magazine (a sign that this screenplay was written in the 1990’s, or else he would talk about getting featured on their website or something like that). Sally meets her father’s new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes, Batman Begins) and instantly doesn’t like her, and this leaves Kim feeling like crap, as she is trying to befriend Sally and just wants to be a good provider and protector. And while this dysfunctional family dynamic plays out in the house, Sally discovers that they are not alone – the basement is home to some gross, scary little goblins, and while Sally thinks that they are friendly at first, she quickly learns to be afraid of them. And the rest of the movie is Sally fighting off the goblins and trying to convince the adults they exist while the adults all insist that she is making it all up and that the best solution will be psychotropic drugs and therapy, just like typical horror movie parents.
Don’t be Afraid of the Dark is very atmospheric and creepy, and first-time feature length director Troy Nixey did a very good job in establishing menace and danger throughout the movie. The first 30-40 minutes of the movie is the strongest part of the film, as the little creatures are kept in the shadows and hidden from sight. The most we see of them are their beady eyes and their silhouettes, and they are pretty freaking scary when they start terrorizing Sally. There is one moment in the movie where they all pretty much come out of the shadows and we get our first real good look at them, and while these CG creatures are weird and creepy looking, it still undercuts some of the tension when we do get to see them, and we longer have to use our imaginations to figure out what they look like or what they are capable of. And like with 99% of CG creations, these little creatures appear strangely weightless when they leap and jump around, which also cuts down the tension and scares a bit because it is obvious that they are not real. But for the most part, these goblins are scary and cause some serious damage, and it’s a helluva sight to see one of these things dragging around a pair of scissors with malicious intent.
But what really keeps this movie from being something of a masterpiece is the lack of strong characterization of the humans. Sally is the only one with any real development, as she is stuck in a pretty bad family situation, but otherwise we just have a dunderheaded and stubborn father and his doting and more levelheaded girlfriend, who hints at her own traumatic childhood but doesn’t bring it up again. The same goes with all of the stuff involving therapy and medication for mental issues, which is central to the story for the first 30 minutes and then gets dropped completely. There are also several instances throughout the movie of something happening that should change the way characters act and think, but it gets glossed over and then immediately forgotten, such as when Sally gathers definitive evidence of the goblins’ existence, only to have all of that evidence not matter at all, which ends up being pretty frustrating.
As this movie was developed and produced by Guillermo Del Toro, there are some obvious parallels between this movie and his other work, especially the whole concept of a young child being terrorized by an evil otherworldly or ancient force. And unfortunately, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is like some of Del Toro’s movies that are visual feasts but are also hampered by a mediocre story and script. This is a good horror film, full of real scares and chills, but the lack of a strong screenplay keeps it from being an instant classic, which it could have been. But with the current state of horror films, this movie is still a breath of fresh air, as it is nice to see a story of this style told in a competent and effective way.
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