Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark **
Directed by: Troy Nixey.
Written by: Guillermo del Toro & Matthew Robbins based on the teleplay by Nigel McKeand.
Starring: Katie Holmes (Kim), Guy Pearce (Alex), Bailee Madison (Sally), Jack Thompson (Harris), Garry McDonald (Blackwood), Julia Blake (Mrs. Underhill).
The haunted house is a staple of horror movies. The bigger and older the house, the spookier it is. And the house in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark certainly qualifies. Not only is it old and dilapidated, but it also has a hidden basement, that they have to break down a wall to discover. And of course, no haunted house would be complete without an old handyman warning the residents to be careful – there is something not right about this house. We know the handyman is right, because in the movie’s first scene – set 100 years before the rest of the movie, we see a famed painter go crazy, and smash out a poor woman’s teeth before killing her. Something is not right indeed.
Co-written and produced by horror master Guillermo Del Toro, based on a 1973 film of the same name, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has all the elements to make a good haunted house movie, but never really comes together. Yes, the opening scene is spooky, and when we flash forward 100 years, the first few scenes there are effective as well. Sally (Bailee Madison), a smart, but spooky looking, little girl is being sent by her mother to live with her father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes). They have bought the old rundown house, and have sunk all their money into restoring it for profit (in this housing market? They must be insane!) Sally has barely moved in when she starts hearing voices calling to her. But where are they coming from? It’s not until they find the basement, and the ash pit found there, that she can pinpoint the voices.
This setup is effective. The voices are creepy, and the house has a tremendous atmosphere. You feel like a good horror movie is going to take place here – even if the human conflicts (Sally resents Kim, Alex preaches patience to his new girl, a big dinner party that will make them or break them is coming up, etc.) are not all that interesting. Madison does a good job for a kid in a horror movie – she seems haunted, not just by the house, but as if she was damaged when she got there. And Katie Holmes, an actress I usually don’t like, is fine as well. Guy Pearce is going through the motions however.
To me though, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark goes off the rails when we discover what exactly is making those voices. I’m not going to tell you, because I didn’t know going in, and if the movie is going to work for you, it’s probably best not to know. What I will say is that the source of the voices is fairly ridiculous, and to me undermined the other fine qualities of the movies. After knowing where the voices come from, it really became impossible for me to take the movie all that seriously.