Anytime a film has Guillermo del Toro’s name attached to it, a viewer has some fairly standard and somewhat high expectations. A child protagonist, strange otherworldly creatures, a haunted house. Del Toro’s Spanish-based work, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, have the perfect combination of adventure, fear and mysticism. Del Toro wrote the screenplay for and produced Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which has many of his signature tropes. This film is admittedly not up the standards of his previous work, which might be due to the American influence that does not allow for as much subtlety and sophistication. Still, it is a better-than-average horror-fantasy film with a decent story and enough scares to keep it entertaining.
Sally is sent by her mother to live with her father in his new home in Rhode Island. Dad Alex Hirst (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) are restoring an old house, in hopes that it will get them coverage in an architecture magazine. This house, of course, has some dark secrets, in the form of strange creatures that live far beneath it and have a hunger for children’s teeth. These creatures start to sweet-talk the lonely Sally Hirst, who soon figures out their evil intentions, but no one, except perhaps Kim, believes her.
The narrative runs through a fairly familiar thread: Sally is sullen in her new home and has difficulty relating to her father and Kim; the outsider, Kim, being Sally’s only true friend; a caretaker on the premises knowing the secret and trying to protect the family. Director Troy Nixey has only one short film under his belt (the excellent Latchkey’s Lament), which might explain the relative lack of imagination and originality in his effort. The haunted house setting combines the contemporary and old, but there is nothing outstanding in how it is portrayed. In a film such as this, the house needs to become a kind of character, but it is neither foreboding nor particularly interesting. The basement, the scene of the crime, feels somewhat scary, but seems to need the assistance of the score for full effect.
This is not to say that Nixey has done a bad job; more that there is no sense of the director in the film. This film is Del Toro’s in story, content and some of the style. But unlike his previous films, this does not have the same depth (this could be because his other work was set in a turbulent historical time.) Certainly, Don’t be Afraid of the Dark is extremely entertaining for what it lacks in depth, and the creatures are nasty enough that you wouldn’t want to find them hiding in the corners of your basement. This films feels like Pan’s Labyrinth light: a lone girl against the monsters with little assistance from her parents, a kindly non-relative who swears to protect her at her own expense, and a creepy wilderness. Without the gravitas, its strengths lie in its better-than-average-horror cast and good scares.