“Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark” is a creepy little movie. It’s scary in places too, but not because of what you see on the screen. There is a hole in the basement of the haunted old mansion that is the focal point of the film. It’s dark and foreboding and seems to go down forever. We never see what is at the bottom of that hole, and what’s down there is far more terrifying than anything that crawls out of it.
Alex (Guy Pearce) is a flashy architect whose latest project is restoring an impressive mansion with a famous history. He’s living in the house with his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes), who’s helping him with the interior design. When his troubled 8-year-old daughter Sally (Bailee Madison) comes to live with them, something evil begins to stir in the basement. In time, Sally will be in a fight for her life as creatures from the basement seek to whet their long festering appetite for little children.
Co-written by Guillermo del Toro, “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark” borrows a lot from the great horror filmmaker’s work in films like “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” But the narrative of “Afraid” is much smaller than those films and has more in common with del Toro’s “Hellboy” films than his more literate and award worthy works. And because the story follows familiar horror conventions, it is much more blatantly commercial than the films involving children that del Toro is known for. This may be the film’s undoing for horror die-hards. “Afraid” is a good little chiller, but little more.
That hole in the basement is an intriguing device. And the mythology associated with the creatures that emerge from it could have been fascinating. Unfortunately, “Afraid” short cuts the back story leaving the origin of the evil in the basement a bit of mystery. Some viewers will like this approach, especially given that the “bump and jump” moments are emphasized and pay off well. When the background details are finally unveiled, it seems rushed and tacked on. But the fact that I wanted to learn more about the evil means that the story connected with me and will likely draw others in as well.
The visual scope of the movie is vintage del Toro. Director Troy Nixey was selected by del Toro based on his short film “Latchkey’s Lament,” and he has an excellent eye. Nixey’s intimate focus mainly on Sally from the point of view of the creatures that pursue her in the darkness works well and ratchets up the creep factor. It helps that Madison is so very convincing as the little girl in peril. The movie has a small body count and contains no sex and features limited comic violence. But it is my understanding that due to the presence of a child in danger throughout the film, the MPAA slapped it with an R-rating. Certainly any youngster seeing the movie would have many sleepless nights. Therefore, the rating is about right.
Early on the creatures that crawl from the haunting bottomless pit in the basement are threatening but as the story moves from scares to action, the rat-like invaders become more like demonic gremlins making them more humorous than scary. And this is probably intended and part of the reason why “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark” is creepy but never really delivers lingering terror.
Note that “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark” is based on a 1973 television movie, which I’ve not seen, of the same name that has quite a following.