When it comes to horror movies involving supernatural creatures, most films follow a well-worn narrative path. First, we get a scene hinting at the creatures’ origin, then we’re introduced to the characters destined to be victimized. This is generally followed by a variety of scary encounters that evolve from fleeting, corner-of-the-eye glimpses of the creatures to full-on, scream-inducing attacks. Finally, after all of that build-up, the remaining characters know as much as the audience about what they’re up against, and the victims take the battle to the beasties for a climactic, movie-ending brawl.
Sound familiar? It should. Not only is that the basic plot for more creature movies than we can count (both good and bad), it’s also the general sequence of events in Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, Guillermo Del Toro and Troy Nixey’s new film about vicious little monsters that terrorize the new occupants of a massive mansion.
However, while the the general formula is one any movie buff will find familiar, it’s what the pair do with that well-tested formula — and the unique flourishes they add to the story — that makes Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark so much fun.
A remake of a 1973 made-for-television horror film, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is the feature-film debut of director Troy Nixey, a comic book artist who earned the attention of Del Toro with his wonderfully creepy short film Latchkey’s Lament. The 2011 incarnation of Don’t Be Afraid features a screenplay by Del Toro (who also served as producer), and the visionary director’s fingerprints can be seen all over the dark, frightening tale.
In the film, Guy Pearce plays Alex Hirst, a career-obsessed renovation expert who teams up with his interior designer girlfriend (played by Katie Holmes) to restore the family home and sprawling estate of a wildlife painter who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. However, while the pair are touted as the film’s headliners, it’s 12-year-old actress Bailee Madison that offers the real standout performance among the film’s human cast members.
Madison plays Alex’s daughter, Sally, who’s sent to live with her father and first awakens the light-fearing, spindle-armed beasties locked away in a hidden room.
As Sally explores the inside of the mansion and its surrounding grounds, it’s easy to see where Del Toro and Nixey found common ground in their visual styles. A hedge maze and fountain located on the grounds immediately bring to mind elements of the lush but sinister scenery of Pan’s Labyrinth, while the creatures themselves show off the filmmaking duo’s knack for making animated beasties not only look real, but terrifying, too.
Initially drawn to the creatures by their whispered pleas, Sally and the rest of the mansion’s occupants soon find themselves under attack by the miniature, toothy little buggers, leading to quite a few scenes that should elicit screams from the audience and cause more than a few theater-goers to check under their beds that night.
At this point, it’s worth noting that the scares are ratcheted up long before we’re brought face to flinch-inducing face with the creatures of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, though — and this offers yet another example of the film’s accomplishments.
While there’s no denying that sound effects and editing are important parts of the moviemaking process, it becomes clear early on that the Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark sound team raised the bar when it came to bringing the film’s skittering, snickering antagonists to life long before they appear onscreen. In fact, the barely audible whispers from the creatures eventually become a white noise of sorts throughout the film, adding an extra layer of terror when the sound suddenly stops and you realize that they’ve been whispering the whole time.
If there are faults to be found in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, one could easily cite the aforementioned, formulaic approach to creature-based horror that the film takes, allowing anyone who’s seen a fair share of films in the genre to have a good idea of what to expect and when to expect it.
It could also be argued that the film spoils many of its best scares in the trailer and other promotional material. Over the course of the movie, there are probably five or six major scares that will have audiences buzzing after they leave the theater, but the climactic moments from at least half of those scenes have already appeared in early trailers or clips for the film. While watching the movie, I found myself anticipating certain scenes that appeared in the marketing footage, and as a result, those scenes lost some of that all-important scare factor.
Still, even in a theater full of film critics and journalists who have seen all of aforementioned footage, there were more than a few gasps, jumps, and muffled exclamations during the screening of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark that I attended — which bodes well for the film. While it’s certainly not destined to become a “classic” of the genre, it’s a terribly fun, scary little story that does everything it needs to make you leave the theater with a smile on your face… and an urge to leave the lights on for at least a night or two.
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