I’ve never seen the 1973 made-for-TV movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, according to my mom its terrifying although I attribute most of that to the fact she watched it as a kid. Regardless, director Troy Nixey’s remake is a solid horror story that relies far more on atmosphere and acting to convey horror making the film a fun time at the theater.
Eight-year-old Sally (Bailee Madison) has been abandoned by her mother and forced to live with her dad Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes). While Kim tries hard to bond with Sally, Alex is only concerned with renovating an old house once owned by a man named Blackwood. While playing Sally discovers a bolted fireplace where voices whisper to let them out. Once she does Sally discovers mysterious creatures are let loose, yearning to claim her for their own and their only fear is light.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a solid horror story that takes elements of fairy tales and Gothic stories to create something new. The idea of a little girl yearning for friends and unearthing demonic creatures might not be ground breaking but the way Nixey and crew present it is engaging and solid. The movie doesn’t pander to cliché, especially in the relationship between mother figure Kim and Sally. From the first scene Kim is desperately to bond with Sally and doesn’t fall into typical evil stepmother or idiot girlfriend, which could have been easy. Sally is wary of Kim but only in the context of how she’s been raised. You find out she’s been abandoned by her mother, yet secretly holds to hope she’ll come back, and you feel for her when she comes to the realization she won’t. The film could have worked as a solid drama but fares a lot better as a horror story. From the shadows of the house to the creepy basement everything is imbued with fear. Sure the CGI creatures aren’t that terrifying but the house and the atmosphere is permeated with a dark and ominous presence you can’t shake. The film also doesn’t resort to easy scare tactics like jump scares, instead letting the dark literally take over and scare you. Combined with a darkened theater, this movie works at scaring you! The films’ ending is also pretty gutsy for a horror movie of this caliber, enough said!
The acting isn’t groundbreaking but better than a lot of other horror films out there. Bailee Madison is fantastic as Sally. Compared to another movie starring children that’s out, Spy Kids 5, this is what a child actor should be. Madison doesn’t seem wise beyond her years or an idiot like in other films, she’s been abandoned by too many people and has a natural distrust of everything. The rare moments when she smiles and is precocious you want to hug her. The movie already shares many similarities to Pan’s Labyrinth and Madison is up there with the child actress in that film. Katie Holmes isn’t going to win an Oscar anytime soon but I believed her as Kim. She’s just the right amount of personable to make you believe she loves Sally and you definitely don’t want anything to happen to her.
The only weak link is a few repetitious scenes and Guy Pearce as the father. When Sally isn’t being tormented by the creatures, the movie doesn’t have any spark. This mostly happens when Alex and Kim are discussing Sally and their relationship. It’s not bad during the first conversation, but the movie keeps coming back to them having the exact same discussion. We get it, Sally doesn’t like Kim and Alex doesn’t bond with her! It’s beaten into the audience’s head with a sledgehammer. Pearce phones in his performance and his character is either written like a neglectful parent or someone had a horrible father growing up. Alex is completely neglectful of his child to the point that you start to wonder if Sally was accidentally diverted from foster care. Sally actually disappears, kidnapped by the creatures and Alex simply says “she runs away sometimes” and doesn’t even seek to look for her! When they finally do go to look for her and see her walking aimlessly down a road, Alex forces Kim back into the car and leaves Sally there! I mean this man must want his kid to end up on a milk carton! Poor writing all around.
Aside from Pearce and some overused conversations I was impressed with Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. The horror is used to great effect and by reverting to the dark element it takes audiences back to the most basic element of fear. Well done!