Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is the kind of film that will probably freak out pre-teens in the same way Goosebumps books or TV’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? did. It feels lovingly crafted by people who missed being stuck home on a Friday or Saturday night with their parents. In its own way, the latest film from producer Guillermo del Toro exudes cheeseball charm, but the second any rational thought enters the mind of the viewer the experience falls apart.
Sally (Bailee Madison) plays a young girl sent to live with her father (Guy Pearce) in Rhode Island for reasons that are never really explained. Her father is an architect fixing up a not entirely spooky looking estate with a dark past. Dad is also dating the interior decorator of the house (Katie Holmes) who is trying desperately to get through to her potential step-daughter. After uncovering a secret basement in the home, Sally unwittingly unleashes a plague of evil faeries who say they want to play, but really want to kill someone and steal her teeth.
Naturally, the adults never believe that child. That’s just fine since most films of this kind are predicated upon that very plot contrivance. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark wears its love for all things cliché on its celluloid sleeve. Rustling leaves, thunderstorms, shadows, secret passages, a story based on childhood mythology, fractured families, topiaries, air vents, kindly gardeners and maids, eerie drawings, the very title. These are all clichés that the film does relatively well on a technical level, but about halfway through the film it starts to get a bit annoying and a lot less endearing.
None of this blame necessarily falls at the feet of the cast. Madison shines as a scared and potentially over-medicated child. Holmes manages a few moments of grace as the woman who starts to believe the child. Pearce has the most unenviable job of being the guy who makes all the terrible and idiotic decisions that keep the family at the creepy house for the entirety of the running time. He may very well come across as the stupidest father that ever lived, but it acts as proof that Pearce is really incapable of turning in bad work.
The film, however, can’t sustain a level of creepy childish fun for more than an hour. After that hour, the film feels like it takes an eternity to get to a conclusion that the audience can see coming a mile away. Troy Nixey directs with only a base level of enthusiasm for a film where the creepy nature of the house should play a bigger role. Nixey and del Toro (who co-wrote with Mimic collaborator Matthew Robbins) simply want to get to the creepy (and admittedly very silly sounding) creatures that have been causing a violent ruckus.
Watching stupid people do stupid things really works best in television form and only for an hour at a time. In this respect, it is quite apparent that del Toro and Robbins adapted the film from a television special. Once the film reaches its unconscionably long home stretch, it strains the logic centres of even the dullest of brains. Watching these people stay in the house for as long as they do makes Poltergeist feel like a commercial. It doesn’t help that the films conclusion is curiously disjointed with a lot of elements that never go anywhere. It gets confusing and downright frustrating.
This is the kind of film I probably would have unconditionally loved if I was 8 or 9 at the time. A film like this is one I can see the younger generation looking back upon with fond memories. In a wave of nostalgia they will watch it again when they turn 25 and realize that it’s actually pretty bad.