This movie was screened as part of the 2010 Virginia Film Festival.
PLOT: A troubled young girl is sent to live with her architect father and his new girlfriend in the abandoned Gothic house they're remodeling. But the terrifying prospects of a new life, location and potential stepmother don't hold a candle to the more sinister creatures awaiting her in the building's chimney.
REVIEW: Despite our worshiping at the altar of Guillermo del Toro, DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK seemingly slipped past the collective radar until this year's Comic-Con, where the effective and "toothsome" footage, coupled with the filmmaker's unending enthusiasm, confidently announced the movie as something to anticipate. And although the financial troubles of Miramax have pushed the film back to an unspecified 2011 release date, this early sneak peek proved promising.
As a horror movie with intent to terrify, DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK works well. Everything you love about del Toro rings true for this film; despite only being a writer/producer on the project, it feels very much a product of his warped imagination, from the pure horror to a sense of wonder and fantasy. In fact, the man wrote the initial draft of the script over 12 years ago and has clearly mined some of these ideas for other movies, PAN'S LABYRINTH especially. Aside from thematic and structural similarities, there's specifics like the young female protagonist, the outdoor garden and maze, an underworld of creatures, and step parents and adults who don't listen. (Not to mention the tooth fairies at the beginning of HELLBOY 2.) The result feels familiar but the final product is executed quite differently and enjoyable nonetheless.
And like those other works, this film is most effective at cultivating a creepy atmosphere. The perfectly ominous house, the dreary New England setting, the cold character interactions and the great cinematography (it's a very dark movie, both figuratively and literally) help lead to a feeling of unease and tension that definitely works in the movie's favor. There are also a fair number of standard jump scares, but the movie has the ulterior mood to back it up and keep it from feeling cheap.
First time director Troy Nixey keeps the pace running briskly and the visuals interesting and dynamic without being showy. (Seriously love the high shot of the library floor. You'll know it when you see it.) Though the man totally got lucky with the casting of Bailee Madison as Sally, who proves herself to be a young talent worth looking out for. The 10 year old is proficient in playing a fairly nuanced character, but moreover she carries the emotional baggage for the audience that centers the film. Separately, Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes worked well as the two adult leads, (Holmes in particular was much warmer as an onscreen parent than I expected), but their chemistry as a couple just didn't click with me, which made for some missed opportunities in the end.
Nixey was also greatly aided (or responsible for) some amazing production and creature design. As the film is set almost entirely inside the house, the filmmakers clearly went all out in creating a domicile that's intriguing enough to spend 90 minutes with, but also foreboding enough to keep you removed and be something of a second protagonist itself. As for the things living inside the house, the fairies aren't your standard Tinkerbell variety pixies, but more along the lines of foul-faced little trolls (similar to the demons from THE GATE, really.) The thing that irked me most about them was their combination of the fantastical and the practical, i.e. their willingness to pick up everyday objects like razors and knives to try and kill you, which made them much more effective and didn't seem fair. Although the creature's constant whispers and cheesy dialogue did kind of kill their evil mojo, mainly for how verbose and well spoken they were.
The scares, the atmosphere and the characters are all there, but ultimately DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK's one weakness fell to the script—mainly, there were too many eye-rolling actions and leaps in logic to go unnoticed. Granted, it's a horror movie and the choice of pacing and tension over believability is expected to a degree, but the third time the little girl has a) been attacked by something in the house while other people are around, b) drawn pictures of the creatures that match similar drawings from hundreds of years ago, and c) clearly been under serious mental distress to the point of needing therapy…you probably shouldn't leave her alone in the house. It got to the point where Guy Pearce's character came off as a serious a-hole who didn't care about his kid, which led to multiple instances of the audience laughing and even groaning at inappropriate times. And while the attacks and action-heavy sequences were very effective and thrilling, there were again simple common sense solutions that were ignored. More than once I found myself saying, "Man, this is cool. But wait, the fairies are afraid of the light, why don't they just flip the light switch on?" There were even some lazy tropes I can't believe were utilized, like the convenient librarian who just happens to be an expert on not only ancient fairy lore, but also the history of the specific house they live in. Del Toro hasn't hidden his love for the original 1973 TV movie on which this was based, but I'm afraid his respect for it may have translated to being too faithful to old story points that needed some updating.
Overall though, I do think DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is an effective horror film that fits nicely in the ever expanding canon of Guillermo del Toro. It may not be super fresh storytelling, but it gets the job done.
(Producer Mark Johnson mentioned afterward that the film just received an R rating, mainly for too many intense sequences involving little children. So don't worry about it being watered down upon release.)