Starring: Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, and Bailee Madison. Directed by: Troy Nixey
One of my favorite things about films in general is the atmosphere they create. Comedies, for example, tend to be filmed using very straight-forward camera techniques that keep the viewers’ attention squarely on the actors who are responsible for making them laugh, and bright color palates that are designed to be uplifting and happy. Horror films, on the other hand, are traditionally filmed in the completely opposite way: drab and dreary colors, constant darkness, and camera angles that deliberately mislead the viewers’ eyes, keeping them wondering if they REALLY just saw the thing lurking in the corner of the room. Thankfully, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” absolutely bleeds such an atmosphere. Sadly, there isn’t much else going for it.
Based on the 1973 made-for-television film of the same name, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” tells the story of Sally (Bailee Madison), a young girl sent from Los Angeles to live with her father, Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes), while they restore a 19th century mansion. While exploring the grounds surrounding the estate, Sally discovers a skylight looking down into a large room beneath the house… a room that has been sealed off and hidden. Anxious to see everything the place has to offer, Alex and Kim find the location of the room’s entrance and break in, and there they find the private drawing-room of Mr. Blackwood, an artist who once owned the mansion, but who disappeared without a trace nearly a century before. Sally, uninterested in the house’s rich history, wanders around the room until something catches her eye – a small grate near the floor that’s been sealed shut. Later that night, Sally sneaks down into the hidden room to get a closer look at the grate… and hears whispering voices calling her name… asking her to be their friend… asking her to come and play.
To write anything else would ruin the shocks and scares that “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” has to offer, limited though they may be. The creepy tone that the director and cinematographer create is pitch-perfect, with clever use of lighting and camerawork throughout. The sound design is also first-rate, allowing viewers to be enveloped by the raspy whispers and all the other little things that go “bump” in the night. The performances are uniformly solid, if a little clichéd, with the young Bailee Madison taking center stage here. She portrays “terrified” very well, with Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes doing all they can as “the adults who are really concerned but still don’t believe the child when she tells them what she’s afraid of”. Which brings me, unfortunately, to the subject of exactly what it is that young Sally is so scared of.
If you’re reading this review, no doubt you’ve seen the preview for this film, so it’s probably not a surprise that there are creatures involved here. Quite a few of them, in fact. And it’s these little beasts that cause the last 30 minutes of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” to go slightly downhill. It’s not that they’re not creepy, or even that they’re poorly designed… the issue is that we see TOO much of them as the film goes on. Some may see this as a great payoff after a little more than an hour of small glimpses and teases, but I’m not one of those people. I’ve always believed that in films like this one, keeping the audience in suspense is decidedly more effective. By the time this one ended, I had seen so much that I simply wasn’t scared anymore.
When all is said and done, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is a descent film with a genuinely scary premise. My personal issues with some of the filmmakers’ choices not withstanding, I recommend this to anyone who enjoys “creature features”, but who also doesn’t mind seeing a little too much too soon.