Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark
Shot in Melbourne in 2009, this is a remake of a 1973 horror film about a couple and their young daughter who move into a big old house that is occupied by malevolent creatures. That scary low budget telemovie apparently was a big influence on Mexican born horror film director Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth, who describes it as the scariest movie ever aired on television. It’s little wonder that he was keen to remake it and add his own stamp to the material.
Del Toro has written and produced this updated version of the tale, although he has handed over directorial chores to Canadian director Troy Nixey, making his feature debut here. Working from a script from Del Toro and Matthew Robbins, who also collaborated on Mimic, Nixey beefs up the unsettling atmosphere here. Nixey displays a great understanding of the tropes of the horror genre, remains relatively faithful to what made John Newland’s original such an effective thriller that had an impact on the young Del Toro.
The film’s unsettling prologue sees Garry McDonald brutally kill his maid and place her teeth inside the basement furnace. He is then pulled inside the furnace by some strange creatures. Cut to the present. Architect Alex Hurst (Guy Pearce) and his interior decorator girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) are restoring Blackwood Manor, a historic 19th-century Rhode Island mansion that used to be owned by a famous painter who mysteriously disappeared.
Then Alex’s estranged and emotionally disturbed young daughter Sally (Bailee Madison) is sent to stay with her father. Her presence stirs the strange creatures, known as homunculi, that have remained dormant and hidden in the basement for many years. They apparently feed off children, are afraid of bright lights, and also feed on human teeth. Sally initially is intrigued when she hears strange voices from the basement. Slowly she becomes more aware of the sinister intentions of these ugly, rat-like creatures that come out at dark. However her emotionally distant father is intent on his work and seems oblivious to their presence. By the time Kim comes to believe that Sally is in danger it is too late.
HP Lovecraft’s story The Rats in the Walls apparently inspired the film, although the ingredients of the haunted house have driven other films like the classic The Innocents, The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist. This film has the creepy air of mounting dread, spooky happenings, things that whisper and hiss and go bump in the night that was lacking in the recent Paranormal Activity 3.
Pearce and Holmes do what they can with their stereotypical characters, but their performances are lazy. Young Madison is quite good, and brings a wonderful vulnerability to her performance as the surly Sally, who would much rather be home in sunny California. A number of local actors contribute brief appearances, although they offer up a variety of strange, unconvincing American accents. Jack Thompson plays a grumpy old handyman who knows more about the house’s dark past than he is admitting, while Julia Blake appears a kindly housekeeper.
Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark is somewhat cliched and derivative, and there are obvious gaps in the narrative’s logic. But it is also an effective horror film that combines those genre staples of a haunted dark mansion, a dysfunctional family, and a child in peril from malevolent apparitions. Roger Ford’s production design creates a nicely unsettling Gothic mansion, and veteran cinematographer Oliver Stapleton effectively uses light and shadows to infuse every crook and nanny of the mansion with tension. A scene set inside a hidden garden graveyard seems to be directly referencing Pan’s Labyrinth. The state-of-the-art digital effects that create the creatures are also good, although they are much more frightening when they remain in the shadows and our imagination does most of the work. When seen in close-up they look like distant cousins of the gremlins.
However, despite a few shocks and moody atmosphere it lacks the dramatic power and suspense and horrors of Del Toro’s best films like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, which were genuinely creepy.