Directed by: Troy Nixey
Starring: Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison
More often than not nowadays, interesting premises are marred by misleading ad campaigns and poor execution. While this unfortunate reality can prove to be negligible given a particular genre of filmmaking, it’s sad to say that contemporary horror films don’t have any room left for even the smallest missteps. Outside of the predictable failure of some more recent (unnecessary) remakes, the last thing we need is another uninspired bloodbath that relies solely on jump scares and “torture porn” elements to get a rise out of audiences. If anyone could remedy this, one might appoint Guillermo Del Toro to do so, yet his hand alone isn’t enough to save Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark from being a borderline scare-free, unintentionally hilarious and tiresome experience despite the homage it aims to pay to both its source material and the genre’s precursors.
Based on a teleplay from the 1970s, it’s easy to tell that the film aims to maintain the “old school” horror flick sensibilities that were once and still are appealing to die hard genre aficionados and casual viewers alike. Successful as it may be in this regard, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark ends up adhering a little too strongly to some mistakes it makes early on in the proceedings. For starters, whispers aren’t all that scary in excess, especially when the creatures uttering them tend to get a bit carried away whilst attempting to coax young Sally to stick her head inside a furnace long enough for the lot to get their hands on her.
Following an admittedly fantastic opening sequence that effectively sets the mood for a majority of the film, the creatures themselves are given an ungodly amount of screen time in a possible attempt to reassure us that Sally is, in fact, not insane. Obvious as this is regardless, the little guys become far less terrifying with each prolonged interaction we have with them, and seeing as how the film is quite literally all build-up with little payoff in terms of legitimate scares, everything starts to come off as tiresome and even a little frustrating. Deliberate pacing aside, director Troy Nixey ultimately fails in carefully balancing key plot components to craft an effective blend of genuine spooks and the back-and-forth Sally has with her father and others regarding her potentially dwindling sanity.
While Don’t Be Afraid‘s latter act compliments the aforementioned opening wonderfully and remains one of the film’s few high points, the young Bailee Madison does a fine enough job in carrying the torch whenever the opportunity to do so presents itself. Irritating as her prolonged bouts of whining may be, her performance amps up the tension and the sense of urgency that coincides with her need to expose the creatures to both her father and soon-to-be stepmother, Kim, aptly portrayed by Guy Pearce and the previously off-the-grid Katie Holmes respectively. All in all, the performances almost help us overlook just how laughable some of the film’s scarier moments end up being, but not nearly enough to help one enjoy the film as a whole.
As easy as it may be to appreciate this film as a straightforward, “old school” homage to both the original made-for-TV movie and the inspirational horror classics of decades past, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark suffers from one thing that takes an immeasurably detrimental toll on the entire production: it simply isn’t as scary as it should have been. Long stretches of familial tension involving countless arguments between Sally and her father take away from the proceedings considerably as the film chugs along, as does a questionable amount of screen time for the creatures that threaten their dwelling’s new inhabitants. While some sequences may be funnier than they are terrifying, the efforts of the cast and a gratifying conclusion manage to compensate for a small fraction of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark‘s more glaring flaws.