With autumn usually comes an onslaught of horror movies and as much as I love Halloween, this poses a problem for me. I can only handle scary movies to a certain point. For some movies even the preview is too much for me. I enjoy the thrill of a scary movie, but I don't like sleeping with the lights on for the rest of the week. If you're a scaredy cat like me, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark might be a good solution.
At the start, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark reminds me of The Secret Garden. Sally (Bailee Madison), the eight year-old daughter of divorced parents, is sent across the country to live with her father (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes) in an old mansion they are restoring. Something is wrong with Sally, but the details aren't given. Maybe she's depressed; maybe she has ADD; definitely she has questionable parents. Lonely and feeling unwanted Sally spends her days exploring the mansion and its grounds with her rad shoes and bad attitude. One day she finds a boarded-up basement and then a barricaded secret door within. That's where this secret garden gets really demented. Sally begins to hear voices from the basement calling to her to be friends with them. She's unwittingly unleashed ancient creatures whose "friendship" could be lethal.
I loved how this story opens with childlike wonder as Sally explores and thinks she's found something fantastic before that wonder gives way to terror. Throughout, the cinematography mixes these two elements so that many scenes are at once both beautiful and horrible. For example, in one scene a creature has climbed under Sally's sheets and as she investigates with her flashlight, the light playing off the billowing of the sheets creates a lovely image that conjures memories of reading after lights-out or building bedroom forts. The moment is quickly flipped, however, as the creature lunges at Sally in all its ugliness.
So much of this film is familiar, but in a really nice way. The groundskeeper and housekeeper are archetypal characters, but their presence somehow adds to the tension. You know Harris (Jack Thompson) knows something, the question is when and why will he tell? The plot of the movie features many staples of haunted house stories, but the beauty of the film makes them more pleasing rather than shopworn. Because they are so formulaic, I generally lose interest near the middle of horror movies, but Don't Be Afraid of the Dark kept me engaged the entire time.
Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes deliver pretty unimpressive performances. Pearce's role is little more than a necessity for the plot and his performance is forgettable. Holmes just looks exhausted and vacant for most of the movie. Toward the end she delivers some great scenes, but both adults are out-acted by Bailee Madison (who strangely looks like she could be Holmes's daughter). Madison is able to act like a brat for the first half of the movie, but still win sympathy when the terror begins. Her performance in the more emotional scenes shows depth and ability.
Perhaps the only part of the movie that really didn't work for me is how unscary the creatures actually are. Once I saw them I was a little let down. The positive is that there was no fear of nightmares, but after the creatures were revealed their appearance detracted from the terror of the movie.
For being well-crafted, beautifully made, suspenseful, and engaging, if a little unscary, I rate Don't Be Afraid of the Dark 4/5 stars.
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark was written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins and directed by Troy Nixey. It runs 99 minutes and is rated R for violence and terror.