I’m an easy scare. I tend not to seek out horror movies because the idea of being hit by jump scares doesn’t appeal to me. Troy Nixey’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark goes after gothic, psychological horror with a haunted house/monster movie vibe and that’s usually the way the genre works for me. But despite the exquisite art direction and cinematography, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a horror movie that rarely conjures of any sense of dread or terror.
Co-written and produced by Guillermo del Toro, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a remake of a 1973 TV movie of the same name. The remake’s best scene comes during the prologue as we witness 19th century artist Blackwood (Garry McDonald) madly attack his maid, smash out her teeth, and attempt to trade them (along with his own) to unseen, whispery monsters who have kidnapped his son. Instead, they say they want “child’s teeth” and then take his whole body. We then come to the present day and meet Sally (Bailee Madison), a young girl who is sent away by her selfish mother to live with her father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Amy (Katie Holmes). Alex and Amy are in the process of renovating Blackwood’s old manor when they come across the hidden room where Blackwood disappeared. Meanwhile, Sally, feeling isolated and angry at all the adults in her life, hears the seductive whispers of the creatures who live in the house, but she soon discovers that they’re malevolent, desperate for her teeth, and they really hate light.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark looks exactly as it should. The manor is gorgeous and striking, the pacing attempts to mix the slow burn of a haunted house flick with the intense scares of a monster movie, but it never comes together. Nixey does a perfect imitation of a gothic horror movie and setting, but he never builds it into a sense of dread. Oliver Stapleton’s cinematography captures plenty of beautiful images while rarely creating a sense of foreboding. We should feel that the house itself is out to get Sally, but Nixey and Stapleton put their energy into trying to throw as many shadows into the room as possible and letting that suffice as architectural malevolence.
It’s a sensible strategy seeing as the creatures hide in the dark and hate light, but it’s a missed opportunity as the story relies far too heavily on the modern convenience of electric bulbs while never providing the creatures with the intelligence to remove this obstacle. The creatures eventually figure out to cut the power to the whole house, but the audience is left wondering why they didn’t do it sooner. Even if that was too big a step to take early on the story, why not have them smash the flashlights or cut the electrical cords during the night when everyone is asleep? This loss of electric light could have forced the character to rely on candlelight, a fickle source of illumination and far more fitting with the gothic vibe Nixey is trying to create.
The movie also runs into a problem with the creation of the creatures. In terms of their design, they’re horrifying. But they’re rodent-sized and it takes at least fifteen or so just to bring down one person. Their size isn’t really a problem since they would have to be tiny in order to traverse the house’s ventilation system. It’s their movements. They scurry like rats, but it’s a movement we know. No one likes rats, but we know what rats are and how they move so the otherworldliness of the creatures is diminished every time Nixey has to pull back and watch them try to take down a single person.
Nixey doesn’t throw in too many jump scares, doesn’t rely on gore, and he deserves credit for both. The cast performs admirably, Holmes is the surpise standout, and the relationship between Sally and Kim is well crafted. But Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark‘s mission is to make the audience afraid, whether it’s in the dark or in the light, and unfortunately it does neither.