United States. Directed by Troy Nixey, 2010. Starring Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison, Alan Dale. 99 minutes.
One of the precursors to the modern horror story is the fairy tale, a milieu that receives a bit of an update with Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. The setup is pure Brothers Grimm with a modern twist: young Sally has been sent by her mother, who’s a bit neurotic and not entirely interested in her, to live with her father Alex and his girlfriend Kim in a Gothic Rhode Island mansion. She hears voices coming from the ventilation ducts, and initially thinks that there’s something (or a group of somethings) living underneath the house that wants to be friends with her. But when the curmudgeonly caretaker is viciously attacked, Sally becomes less convinced of these beings’ benevolence. Does anybody believe her? What do you think?
The film’s plot development is satisfying, but too much of the time hews too close to the line that separates faithful emulation of classic tropes from cliché and predictability. A lot of the time, it’s not too hard to guess where things are going (although I was very happy with the ending, which bucks expectations without restoring to a third-act twist). The requisite backstory, while occasionally amusing, isn’t entirely credible and doesn’t add a whole lot to the overall experience. (On the other hand, brownie points to screenwriters Guillermo del Toro–who also produced–and Matthew Robbins for name-checking Arthur Machen and implicitly tying the monsters to the Little People mythos.)
Sally’s a great leading role: she’s sullen and alienated without being bratty, and the movie does a great job of developing her backstory in such a way that makes us understand her bad attitude. I also loved the development of the dynamic between Sally, Alex, Kim and Sally’s unseen mother Joanne. On the other hand, Alex fills the all-too-familiar position of Clueless Dad and Kim’s a ringer for the Mom Who Kicks Ass (genetic connection and marital status notwithstanding). While I recognize the need for “strong female characters” (whatever those are) in horror movies, there are too many scenes in which the focus shifts away from the story being about Sally in favor of being about Kim trying to save Sally, and those scenes aren’t as compelling. Thankfully, the course is corrected in time for the climax.
Veteran child actress Bailee Madison (Wizards of Waverly Place) is competent enough to bring Sally to life, and while there are a couple of flat or awkward moments, I usually bought her in character. That being said, I wasn’t overly impressed and it’s not the sort of performance that will wow those who usually avoid child actors. Katie Holmes is very strong as Kim; she’s gotten a fair amount of stick over the years, I don’t feel she’s a bad actress–as long as she sticks within her range. Guy Pearce is similarly strong as Alex, despite a bit of an underdrawn character and a bad haircut. There’s also memorable supporting performances by character actors Jack Thompson as the caretaker and Alan Dale (who’s seemingly appeared in every non-Joss Whedon cult TV show to air over the last 15 years, but is probably most widely recognized as Charles Widmore, Lost’s chief second-string villain) as one of Alex’s business associates.
The direction (by Canadian comic-book artist Troy Nixey) is, for the most part, fantastic, as is the design, and Nixey does amazing work with his Australian locations (hard to believe this film wasn’t actually shot in New England!). During the early stages of the film Nixey usually only presents the monsters in low light or shadows, and during these scenes they’re very successful. (I’d say they should be used in film schools as examples of how to do stuff like that right.) Unfortunately, there’s a few scenes later on in the film where they’re presented under full light (a great example is when they terrorize Sally during a dinner party), and during these sequences they’re about as believable as CGI goblins ever get…which is not very. Not keeping them in the dark is a major misstep.
Despite a few missteps, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a prime example of how good a mainstream, major-studio, moderate-budget ($25 million) horror film can be if it’s willing to subvert the occasional expectation. Highly enjoyable, even if there are a couple of glaringly obvious ways in which it could have been made much better.