Scary movies can get away with breaking promises to their audience. They can resurrect exhausted clichés (creepy old houses packed with things bumping in the night) and they can even toss in stale character archetypes (the clueless father, the precocious child who sees things adults don’t). But one crime even the best horror can’t get away with is presenting characters so stupid that we lose all interest in whether they live or die. Which is the heart of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.
This film was completed in 2010 and sat on a Miramax shelf for a year (never a good sign). Now it’s being billed as “presented by” Guillermo del Toro, the monster-film virtuoso who won mainstream glory with Pan’s Labyrinth. This marketing tactic has a clear goal: to convince people that this film is something more than a cauldron of stewed garbage. Yes, Del Toro did co-write and co-produce this fiasco. But those of us who love him refuse to believe his involvement was much more than a little creative direction and a few rubber stamps.
The story starts off tepid, graduates into dull and then careens into sheer idiocy: Nine-year-old Sally (an appropriately cute and somber Bailee Madison) is sent by her neglectful mother to live with her father (Guy Pearce, a magnetic actor who phones in every line of this movie) and his textbook post-divorce girlfriend (who else but Katie Holmes?). Of course, they can’t live in just any house—they’re inhabiting and restoring Blackwood Manor, a gothic mansion in Rhode Island filled with secret rooms, shadowy corners and macabre history. As soon as Sally arrives, the night-bumping commences, the hellish beasties eventually emerge, and their cartel proceeds to torment the poor child while the adults ignore her screams and chalk up her behavior to “excessive nerves.”
This plot formula is used more than a Port Authority restroom for a reason: It works. The “precocious child sees what the blind adults can’t” premise can be deeply powerful and terrifying. But it works only if the child is truly precocious, and if the adults are in any way likeable/relatable. Here we have Sally (since when do modern parents name their babies Sally?) displaying a total lack of self-preservation in the face of ominous voices coming from a basement sewer—she goes so far as to steal a box of tools to remove metal bolts from a grate to set them free (since 9-year-olds have an in-depth knowledge of tools, not to mention the strength of a linebacker). Meanwhile, every adult seems afflicted with a severe case of numbskullery—a man emerges from the basement with scissors plunged into his neck and all the housekeeper can do is stare, while the accepted remedy for Sally’s terrified screams is, “Oh, I just put her to bed.”
Don’t even get me started on Holmes.
On the plus side, the movie looks gorgeous—everything Del Toro touches looks a little like Pan’s Labyrinth, with its magical realism and canorous sense of the natural world. No one else can anthropomorphize a set of hedges or a library to the point of menacing beauty. The mansion is magnificent, the raison d’être of the film—every detail is sumptuous and shot with elegant classicism. Even the creatures look impressive, with their skeletal faces and Skeksis posture.
With so much visual beef to work with, director Troy Nixey manages a few genuine creep-you-out moments. But mostly he relies on a single fallback to bring the scare: Sally screaming. In the best horror, child screams are reserved for moments of extreme suspense and foreboding—think Halloween or Poltergeist. Overuse the kid scream, and you go from razor-sharp tension to “Where are my %&$ing earplugs??” Here, we get a 9-year-old screaming incessantly for 60 minutes, while her parents do nothing—it’s like being trapped in a suburban Chuck E. Cheese.
This whole debacle is a shame—after announcing he was no longer directing The Hobbit, Del Toro sustained a blow to his status, and this washout brings him one step closer to full career rupture. It just goes to show, no matter how burnished your backdrop or splendiferous your setting, if your script is crap, you’re stuck with a total dud.