Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a horror film with a mixed heritage. It’s an American story, written by Matthew Robbins and Guillermo del Toro, directed by comic book artist Troy Nixey and filmed in Mount Macedon and Melbourne in Australia. The setting, perhaps in a hat tip to H P Lovecraft, is Providence, Rhode Island. The film is a labour of love for Del Toro and a remake the 1973 ABC made-for-television horror film of the same name that had a huge effect on Del Toro as a child.
The film stars Guy Pearce as Alex, Katie Holmes as Kim and young Bailee Madison as Sally. It has to be said that the absolute star of this film is Bailee Madison. She’s excellent in every scene. Alex and his girlfriend, Kim, are restoring an old mansion and estate, with an eye to getting some serious architecture industry attention and therefore a great boost to their careers. For reasons largely unexplained, Alex’s young daughter, Sally, flies in and comes to live with them in the mansion while the restorations go on. We’re told that Sally’s mum gave her to her dad and the lack of care from the mother is clear in a few examples. No real reasons why, but that’s how it is. We can accept that. It’s just the first of many tropes this film plays.
We know from the opening scene that this 19th century Rhode Island mansion is bad news. The previous owner, Blackwood, lost his only son, who disappeared inexplicably and then Blackwood himself disappeared, equally without explanation. At least, that’s the official story. We know that the malevolent creatures in the ash pit in the basement took them both underground. The opening scene goes from atmospheric Gothic to violent horror very quickly and anyone with a fear of the dentist needs to brace themselves.
The implication is that the house has stood empty for a hundred years since until Alex and family arrive.
The location is fantastic, with the house and grounds a perfect example of the kind of Gothic architecture this film needs. With the arrival of Sally, the film quickly stacks up the formula clichés: the busy dad, the distrusted “stepmom”, the misunderstood child, the creepy house, the groundskeeper who knows something he’s not letting on!
But tropes like these are okay when a story is done well, and there’s a lot to like about this film. The malevolent creatures underground are brilliantly creepy and their use of tools to manipulate the house around them is cool. The use of Sally as the central target and the adults not believing her is another old trope but very well handled in this instance. And it’s good that Kim starts to come around and take things seriously before the lack of belief itself becomes unbelievable.
In the TV original, Sally is an adult and Del Toro’s change to make her a child does wonders for the narrative of the film. There are some truly creepy moments, some real startling make-you-jump moments and a palpable sense of dread maintained through the film. At one point my dog, who had been snoozing quite obliviously, leapt up and started barking at the TV. The sound, as you can imagine from that, is brilliantly handled.
We learn that the malevolent creatures in the piece are fairies, and proper old-school, eating-the-teeth-of-children, afraid-of-the-light fairies too. They’re horrible and dangerous and very well done with the CGI the film uses.
Can you tell there’s a “but” coming?
But, there are a lot of flaws. Primary among them are some continuity errors and gaps in storytelling. A polaroid camera plays a large part in the tale and, while anachronistic, we can accept that as a stylised inclusion. But there do seem to be an awful lot of polaroid photos taken that never really get used, not to mention the ten-flash bar that takes well over ten flash-assisted photos.
There’s a distinct lack of fairy-stomping. Seriously, they’re nasty and dangerous and all, but they’re very small and a lot of kicking and stomping could have reduced the numbers as well as provide some evidence for the unbelievers. And, for that matter, one gets crushed in the library at one point but nothing is ever made of its body, which would have provided some much needed evidence at just the right time. Seriously, at times it’s almost as if they’re trying not to step on the fairies.
Perhaps worst of all, and there’s a tiny spoiler here, is the fate of the groundskeeper. Without giving too much away, fairly early on he runs into the fairies and gets what can only be described as a thorough, en-masse arse-kicking. It’s passed off as an accident, but no one seems to question how an old man can have an accident on his own in the basement that results in slice and stab wounds all over his body from the back of the knee to the palm of the hand, and leaves him staggering through the house with a pair of scissors embedded in his shoulder. Seriously, what the hell kind of accident was that?
People also seem to occasionally get knocked unconscious for exactly the right amount of time for plot advancement, but that’s an ongoing error in movies and something of a personal gripe of mine.
However, these are small gripes in the bigger picture. It’s a shame and the film would have been much better if they had been addressed, but Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark is good old-fashioned scary movie stuff. It’s Gothic in every sense of the word. It does nothing new, painting the whole story by numbers, but it does all of that very well. It’s not terrifying, but it has chills and creeps that carry you along. And the ending is absolute horror, with one truly nasty event. The very last scene is suitably chilling. I do have one major problem with the ending, but I can’t talk about that without giving too much away. Besides, it’s not enough to spoil the film.
This isn’t a bowel-curdling horror film, but it is a very good dark fantasy. If you look past its obvious flaws, there’s a lot to enjoy here. And if you have young teenagers in your life, it’ll be a great way to scare the pants off them.
Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark is distributed by Hopscotch Entertainment and available on DVD and Blu-Ray from April 4th.