"Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," a Movie Review - In Which the Method of Asking One Not to be Afraid of Something is Used to Bring About Said Fear of a Thing as Undefinable and Abstract as "The Dark" and What was the Point of Using such a Device Anyway?
I was hoping (with all my dirty little heart) to be able to write one of the following statements in this review. I wanted to write: this movie is as bland, and boring, and cliche, and predictable as Danielle Steele writing another Romance drama. I wanted to write: this movie has the droll and tired quality of Friday the 13th 26 or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Next Generation Revamped and Remastered Version 5.6.8. I wanted to write: watching this movie was like watching another Scream flick--another one! But if I wrote any of those things about Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Guillermo Del Toro's new movie (you know, the guy who directs movies like Hellboy, Mimic, [nothing special there] and, of course, Pan's Labyrinth--which is a masterpiece I keep hoping he will be able to repeat), they would be unfair and untrue.
Now, I also can't say this movie blew my mind, that it was a masterwork of pure unadulterated cinematic bliss, that it made me catch my breath at every moment, that when I left the theater my eyes were bugging from my skull and my jaw was clenched from some weird hyped-up adrenalinalated state. I can't say those things; they wouldn't be true either. But Don't Be Afraid of the Dark has its moments. And, let me be honest, if it weren't for these certain moments and my particular fondness for "creature mythology," I really would be writing the statements above while I ground my teeth in frustration at another terrible addition to the horror movie canon. It worked for me because the opening sequence drew me in to the story; the opening moments that brought to mind a particularly gripping moment from Marathon Man with Dustin Hoffman (if you haven't seen it--and what the hell are you doing wasting your time and money going to the theater when you could be watching a classic and an uncompromising cinematic experience and a true horror film--look up "marathon man torture scene" on youtube and see what I mean) and intrigued me enough to get through the nagging numbness of cliche and the rest of the film.
If you really like horror movies (and I'm not talking about the blood n' guts gore fest movies like Saw, although occasionally even some of those are worth a watch) then you might actually like Don't Be Afraid of the Dark--you might. I did--some of it. I enjoyed the beginning, like I said, and the scene where Sally is lifting her bed sheets looking for something that might be crawling around under there, (this brings to mind childhood fears of having your feet grabbed in the middle of the night by some underthebed creature) but mostly because of the camera work in that scene. What I didn't like, where the movie failed, was in the suspense building involving these things that live in the dark tunnel beneath the house--this should have been, as the title suggests, the fulcrum around which the movie hinged; there should have been dark things lurking in the dark and they should have been scary because we didn't know what they were and we couldn't see how dangerous they really are; we should have been scared because we were told not to be, because telling us not to be afraid of the dark gets us thinking about what cruel little nasty things might be preparing to jump out at us. "Real" horror comes from this uncanny unease of the unknown and, if used properly, can make a movie about stupid little faeries in the dark into something more profound, of substance. The problem with Don't Be... is that it reveals to us its monster too early and from that point on we can't help but be disappointed that its monster is little things with wings--they could be sooo much creepier!
Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes give competent performances and Bailee Madison does a good job as the little girl Sally. If you liked Mimic, another contemporary "creature feature," if you can even remember that movie at all, then you'll probably like Don't be Afraid of the Dark. I found them both lacking, but still didn't mind wasting my time watching them. I'll leave it like this: it's not a Pan's Labyrinth (or Labyrinth of the Faun, if you prefer a more literal translation), but it is worth a watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon when you weren't going to do anything of any real value with your time anyway.
Edits, additions, etc:
-Another good Del Toro movie, one of his earlier works, is The Devil's Backbone. An interesting story with kids as the primary characters (a recurring Del Toro theme) dealing with horrors the adults just can't understand.
(Thanks, Amber, I forgot about that one.)
-Also, this is a remake of the 1973 movie of the same name. I haven't seen it, but it seems to follow the same plot-line.