Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
★ ★ ★
Rated R/99 min.
There was a moment early on in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark where I knew the movie won me over. During the first half, we never see the basement dwelling monsters that haunt the mansion that was recently purchased by a renovator (Guy Pearce) who moves in with his girlfriend (Katie Holmes) and his daughter (Bailee Madison).
Initially, we only hear the creatures as they creep up on you, whispering not-so-sweet nothings in crisp hisses. We learn that the creatures don’t like bright light (making them not unlike the monsters in Gremlins) and are tiny but threatening little critters. Anyway, the moment that made me smile was when one of the monsters says (and I’m not making this up), “turn off the lights, we’ll be your friends (Ha! Ha!)” and his monsters buddies, also giggling, say “yeah, we’ll be your friends!” followed by more wicked cackling. There’s nothing like a cluster of teeth-eating, child terrorizing monsters that have a fiendish sense of humor.
This remake of a fondly remembered (and even more surreal) 1973 TV movie was reportedly sparked by producer Guillermo Del Toro recalling how much the original once terrified him. It seems every generation of TV watchers remembers seeing something on the idiot box that once petrified them. For some, it may have been episodes of The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Darkside, Dark Shadows or Twin Peaks. For me, it was a horrifying hour of an HBO series called The Hitchhiker that my sweet Aunt Cindy let me watch one afternoon while babysitting me at her house in Makawao many summers ago. Funny, how something that once made us lose hours of sleep can years later be a source of fond nostalgia.
The 2011 version is something of a mixed bag but, bottom line, it’s a horror movie with some big scares and could induce some serious chicken skin. After a grisly opening and a so-so start, you get great spooky-old-house atmosphere, and a couple jolts that are real whoppers but a horror show too familiar to be great.
The creatures are cool looking, have a well established motivation for their mischief and are more interesting than the humans. Holmes’ work is the strongest of the three leads, but her performance won’t cause anyone to jump up and down on Oprah’s couch. Madison is fine at acting very, very scared but Pearce’s one-note turn is as irritating as his gruesome haircut.
Oddly, the biggest scare is featured prominently in the film’s trailer, but the build-up of suspense is good and the movie knows the monsters are best when kept in the shadows. Troy Nixey, making his directorial debut, shows real filmmaking talent, though it’s a hair less effective than The Orphanage, the other film Del Toro produced but didn’t direct (this one has more in common with Del Toro’s own Pan’s Labyrinth from a story angle).
The film is not as scary as this year’s Insidious or The Others, still the best and freshest cinematic ghost story of the past 10 years, but it is well made, with amusing monsters, a real mean streak and a few good jumps.
It’s just not very original or memorable. At least a dozen other movies have covered this material before. In fact, the Kim Darby-starring original may be a hair better and shares the same blood curdling closing moment. Like a vivid nightmare you wake from, it shakes you up, but once the lights go up, it fades from the mind pretty quickly.