August 29, 2011

THE SHOWBUZZDAILY REVIEW: “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”


DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK – Not Even For Free:  No, Really–Don’t Be Afraid



FilmDistrict has gone out of its way to identify co-writer/co-producer Guillermo del Toro with DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, to the extent that from the marketing, one could easily fail to realize that the movie is actually directed by first-timer Troy Nixey.   Fair enough:  del Toro has made it clear that although he’s not in the director’s chair, this is a passion project for him, a remake of the 1973 ABC TV movie that terrified him when he was young.  However, if del Toro wants the association, he also has to take the blame for a dull and not particularly scary horror B-movie.


There are a couple of critical differences between the movie del Toro’s made and the one that frightened him.  For one thing, the ABC thriller was a brisk 73 minutes long, to fit a 90 minute timeslot with commercials.  For another, the protagonist of the TV movie was the adult Kim Darby, playing the wife of a couple that moves into a spooky old house, where Darby starts hearing the voices of… something… that lives in the walls.  In del Toro’s version, the heroine is the young girl Sally (Bailee Madison, who was one of Jennifer Aniston’s kids in Just Go With It).  Sally is the daughter of architect Alex (Guy Pearce), who is divorced from Sally’s mother.  Mom (an unseen presence in the movie) has the child on Adderall and has decided that she can’t raise the girl any more, so she’s unceremoniously delivered Sally to live with Alex and his interior designer girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes).  They’re restoring an old mansion where something terrible once happened, and soon enough Sally is hearing the voices in the walls, who claim to be her friends.


The movie’s focus on young Sally makes Don’t Be Afraid feel like a low-grade rip-off of del Toro’s own great Pan’s Labyrinth (there’s a scene of Sally wandering in the maze-like back garden that’s like a Pan’s outtake).  But where Pan was a brilliant mixture of fantasy, political allegory and terror, Don’t Be Afraid has nothing on its mind but haunted-house cliches and cheap scares.  Which is another problem, because Don’t Be Afraid has exactly one shock that works, and you’ve already seen it.  It’s in all the trailers, and even the TV spots:  Sally peers deeper and deeper into the covers on her bed, the folds of the blankets moving aside ever so slowly and gradually, until BOO!–a creature jumps into close-up while the soundtrack shrieks.  (There’s also one notably gross scene at the very beginning that likely singlehandedly won the picture its R rating.)  That bedcovers bit comes about halfway through the movie, and after that things get even less scary:  once del Toro makes the mistake of actually showing the creatures, (spoiler alert) they look like nothing so much as the pixies unleashed by Kenneth Branagh in the second Harry Potter movie.

Don’t Be Afraid has some of the bells and whistles of old-time haunted mansion movies:  the handyman (Jack Thompson) who knows more than he’s saying, the important dinner party that you know won’t go well, the crucial materials about the past that have to be tracked down in the local (and oddly luxurious) public library.  Much of this is unintentionally funny, and nothing more so than the mythology of the creatures, when we learn what that is (it’s got something to do with a black market for teeth, approved by a Pope).  The letdown extends even to the very end, when the voices of the creatures reveal something that’s meant to be far more chilling than it actually is.


Del Toro is the one who contorted this picture so that it would be reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth, and it was a bad idea in terms of craftsmanship as well as substance and tone, since the new picture is inferior in every way:  whoever was responsible for the movie’s look, whether del Toro or Nixey or a combination, has come up with a production design that looks soundstage-bound and photography that’s dank without being creepily enveloping.  The acting is no better.  Pearce seems completely unengaged, and Madison spends the whole movie looking glum and/or fearful.  Holmes is a more engaging presence, and her character had the most possibilities, but there just isn’t enough meat in the script for her to have any impact.

Even leaving behind Pan’s Labyrinth or the original TV version of the story, the remade Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark doesn’t have any of the wit or originality of Insidious, the haunted house movie FilmDistrict released earlier this year to remarkable success.   Guillermo del Toro would have been better off preserving his memories by popping the old movie into his DVD whenever he felt the urge to relive his movie-watching youth.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."