Directed by Troy Nixey
I’ve always felt sorry for filmmakers like Henry Selick whose credentials tend to get overshadowed by their more famous, higher-billed producers (to this day, I still have to remind people that Tim Burton didn’t direct The Nightmare Before Christmas). We saw the same thing happen last year when John Dowdle’s Devil got confused as the next M. Night Shyamalan film by the public at large.
Since Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark arrives with Guillermo Del Toro’s name plastered all over it, we’ll no doubt see the same thing, but at least in this case it’s a little more earned. Del Toro (who wrote and produced) takes on a much more active role than previous produced flicks like The Orphanage, and his fingerprints are visible in every frame of this film.
That’s not to take anything away from director Troy Nixey, who crafts a cool Gothic spin on the 1973 TV movie of the same name. The story opens as little Sally Hirst (Bailee Madison) is sent off (i.e., ditched) by her mother to Rhode Island to live with her father (Guy Pierce) and his new girlfriend (Katie Holmes), who are remodeling the world’s creepiest mansion for architectural fame and fortune. No sooner does Sally settle in to her new dysfunctional family life when a horde of small creatures emerge from below the house and start beckoning her to the basement. When she doesn’t comply, Sally quickly becomes the target of the malevolent little hell spawn and must fend for herself – cause adults, as we all know, are dismissive assholes.
While it may not have the same punch as Del Toro’s Spanish-language films, the script is full of his usual ideas and themes. Changing the Sally character (an adult in the TV movie) to a little girl adds an extra level of innocence and vulnerability to the story, and actress Bailee Madison delivers one of the most intense performances you’ll ever see from a child actress, single-handedly blowing away all her adult co-stars. Troy Nixey’s direction is full of suitably dark visuals and lavish production design, and he manages to pull sympathetic moments from every member of the cast (even the ever-wooden Holmes). Make no mistake; this is a creature feature, but it’s the story’s family dynamic that makes it rise above the more conventional elements.
The creatures themselves are all CG creations but look pretty damn great (especially since they’re mostly confined to the shadows) and are better than the admittedly dated shrunken actors and latex masks in the original movie. But while they’re menacing creations, the major strike against Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is that it isn’t very effective as an outright scary horror film. Rather it’s much more of a traditional dark fairy tale, like Pan’s Labyrinth crossed with Gremlins. And aside from a grisly opening sequence, it’s a bit perplexing that the MPAA slapped this one with an R rating.
Despite feeling a bit familiar, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is an expertly paced Gothic chiller that rises above most big-screen studio features thanks to the skill and enthusiasm of its crew and cast. It won’t do much to enhance your fear when the lights go out, but it’s a straightforward classical story well told.
4 out of 5
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