Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
Rated R, 99 min. Directed by Troy Nixey. Starring Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison, Jack Thompson, Garry McDonald.
"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown," wrote H.P. Lovecraft in his 1927 essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature." To that I'd humbly add: The second oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of what's lurking under the bed, in the dark, in the night. Produced and co-written by Guillermo del Toro and loosely based on the 1973 TV movie of the same name, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a fiendish restorative for genre fans who have suffered the better part of the last decade watching godawful reboots of beloved horror franchises – I'm talking to you, former Billy Joel documentarian turned cinematic grave robber Marcus Nispel. Everything from jaw-dropping J-horror to Britain's resurrected Hammer Films have made Hollywood scares seem deadly dull by comparison. That it should be accomplished by a Mexican filmmaker/producer and a comic book writer/artist shooting at an Australian location that doubles for Lovecraft's eldritch, ichor-infused New England probably says something about the globalization of the film market and the necessity of outsiders upsetting the cinematic corpse-cart, but that's not important right now. The fact that Troy Nixey's debut feature is one creepy-ass frightmare is what matters, and boy, does he put the nail in that metaphorical coffin the first time out. It's not perfect, but it's awfully close. Guy Pearce is blandly effective (sorry, but it's accurate) as Alex, an architect/restorer of sinister mansions Katie Holmes is Kim, his partner with a dark past (referenced in but entirely excised from the finished film); and po-faced Bailee Madison is Sally, Alex's 10-year-old daughter who'd rather be back in sunny California with her mom. No such luck: She's been dumped with Dad in what appears to be Shirley Jackson and Gahan Wilson's dream home in dreary, backwater Rhode Island. A ridiculously flinch-worthy prologue sets the dark, Gothic tone and, naturally, belies the title of the film. Sally, feeling unloved and overwhelmed, discovers a mysteriously boarded-up basement and, below that, something that whispers in the dark. It's safe to say fans of everything from Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" to Welsh author Arthur Machen's unsettling ouevre will become downright giddy with all the obscure, fantastical references trotted out by del Toro and co-screenwriter Matthew Robbins. That brings me to Don't Be Afraid of the Dark's major flaw: It has, if anything, too much del Toro all over it. Previously, I would have said there's no such thing, but I'm proven (dead) wrong here: One entire sequence in a hidden garden graveyard seems to be lifted entirely from del Toro's sketches for Pan's Labyrinth, and the art and production design, while visually sumptuous, threaten to overwhelm by sheer dint of their unmistakable del Toro-ness. But, frankly, if that's your debut film's worst problem, you're doing something very, very right. Looming mansions, dour little girls, and things that go bump in the night … what's not to love?
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