Originally written back in 1998 for Miramax, “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark” has had quite a long road to the big screen. Scribes Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins (“Mimic,” “Dragonslayer”) adapted the film from a 1973 made-for-TV movie as a vehicle for del Toro to direct but the project was shelved after numerous rewrites failed to satisfy the studio. Del Toro moved on to direct “Mimic” for Miramax instead which ended up being a disastrous clash of egos between the filmmaker and Bob Weinstein. The producer demanded so many changes that del Toro eventually disowned the film.
Of course this was back when the filmmaker was still a complete unknown in Hollywood, having only made one previous feature, the low-budget Mexican horror film “Cronos.” After the fallout from “Mimic” the filmmaker wisely went back to his roots and made the acclaimed Spanish ghost story “The Devil’s Backbone” which essentially rebooted his career. He spent the next decade alternating between larger budget genre films (“Blade II,” “Hellboy”) and smaller more personal films like 2006’s Oscar winning “Pan’s Labyrinth.” With del Toro now on the A-list (for genre filmmakers anyway) and the Weinsteins having long abandoned Miramax, the filmmaker decided to dust off his old script for “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark” this time as producer. Del Toro hired comic book artist and first-time director Troy Nixey whose “Latchkey’s Lament” short film he had admired and they ignored all of the rewrites and shot the decade-old first draft.
The story focuses on a young girl, Sally (Bailee Madison), who is sent to live with her father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) who are restoring a 19th century mansion in Rhode Island. This is the setup for countless ghost stories but instead of apparitions, the threat here is quite real. While exploring the house Sally begins to hear voices calling to her which are coming from small creatures locked in the basement. The movie is gleefully out of step with the trends of modern horror and initially that seems like that’s a great thing. But as the movie plods along it becomes clear that the foundation of this gothic horror story is as creaky and dated as the floorboards in the house. Save a brief prologue which gives a bit of backstory to the creatures, nearly the entire film takes place with the family in and around the house. It’s a great setting for what could have been a very contained fright fest but the movie is devoid of any real scares.
The 1973 version featured a young couple being terrorized and del Toro has said that he hated how passive and weak the female character was written, hence the addition of a strong-willed 11 year-old girl as the lead here. (The reason nobody listens to Sally is because she’s a child, not because she’s a doormat.) Madison is a talented young performer (who you may recall had a few standout scenes in “Brothers”) and does a good job carrying the film even when the script fails her. An early emotional scene may have you briefly reaching for a hankie but it’s not always clear what’s driving her. In the beginning, her character is absolutely insistent about returning to the basement numerous times to free these obviously malevolent sounding creatures. She seems absolutely fearless about doing so until they are actually unleashed and then spends the rest of the film terrified of them. It’s just completely inexplicable behavior that will have most audience members slapping their foreheads when she eventually succeeds in opening Pandora's box.
Holmes is fine in the film as the de facto stepmother that eventually forms a bond with Sally but Pearce’s character is completely useless. The filmmakers have admitted as much but it makes you wonder why an actor of his caliber signed onto the role in the first place. It’s almost distracting watching him in the film because you keep waiting for a twist to his bland character where he’s given something, anything interesting to do. For a first-time director, Nixey does a good job with the material, with credit especially due to he and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton (“The Cider House Rules”) being unafraid to keep the handsomely shot film in heavy shadow. Nixey likewise executes the creatures well (having sketched the designs out himself) not letting you see too much of them to ruin the suspense and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him go onto better work in the future but it’s the screenplay mainly that fails him.
After mining elements of the script for “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” or even "The Orphanage" (which he produced), the question is why del Toro decided to make this film at all. Fans of the auteur will find plenty of his trademarks here but this is clearly his B material or he would have taken the reins himself. With the source material nearly 40 years old, the screenplay written nearly 15 years ago and the film itself having been delayed for over a year (before being rescued by FilmDistrict) it’s no surprise it feels a little past its expiration. Completists of the Mexican auteur will want to check it out as a curio but it’s hard to imagine general audiences or even horror fans finding anything in there that they haven’t seen before. [C]