Last night I was very excited to catch an advance screening of Don’t be Afraid of the Dark. The tickets were free, thanks to an online contest courtesy of the kind people at Alliance Films and the ghastly ghouls at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. On a side note, I’ve read some interesting tweets about eight films (a total of 19 films will be at the festival) that Toronto After Dark has announced at the currently running Fan Expo. If these reports are accurate, then we have some great films to look forward to! More on this when the films are officially announced.
Don’t be Afraid of the Dark is the latest offering from producer Guillermo del Toro. I’ve been a huge del Toro fan for a while now. He is the director of the fantastic Pan’s Labyrinth, the Hellboy films, the unsettling The Devil’s Backbone and he produced one of my favorite haunted house movies, The Orphanage. Basically, anything horror related with del Toro’s name on it should be good time.
Minor general plot SPOILERS ahead.
The film begins with young Sally (Bailee Madison) moving into a creepy historical fixer-upper with her architect father, Alex (Guy Pearce), and his interior designer girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes). The couple is currently working on restoring the home in order to revive Alex’s career. Shortly after discovering a sealed basement door, Sally begins to hear mysterious voices beckoning to her. She mistakes these voices as those of friends and sets to work trying to find their source. Unfortunately for Sally, she manages to unleash an archaic horror in the old house. Will she be able to convince Alex and Kim about the true nature of the unsettling events that begin to transpire in the home?
Going into Don’t be Afraid of the Dark I was expecting an atmospheric haunted house movie with a twist. The twist being the use of creatures instead of traditional ghosts. I will not go into details regarding the creatures, but I will say that the film delivers a type of monster not often seen seen in horror movies. Also, I was expecting the horror aspects to be rather tame, low on blood and high on jump-out-of-your-seat scare tactics. This was not the case. Although there are a number of ‘startle’ scares, there are also two to three scenes that are not for the squeamish. In particular, the opening and closing action sequences of the film are the two most thrilling parts. However, Don’t be Afraid of the Dark never commits to one type of audience. I feel that this decision hindered rather than helped the film.
The film suffers from a number of issues which prevent it from being as enjoyable as it could have been. The issues also made me feel like there was a Jekyll and Hyde battle going on behind the camera or during the script writing phase. For starters, the slow, creepy atmospheric build up and light horror fare places Don’t be Afraid of the Dark in a category with Joe Dante films like Gremlins or The Burbs (two of my favourite light horror films), not a bad category to be in. However, the more gruesome moments in the film shock the viewer out of this comfortable atmosphere, but they are far too few for the film to be considered a bloody or terrifying film. Also, the audience at times seemed to be confused as to whether they should laugh or not. Intentional and unintentional jokes in the film are very difficult to differentiate between. If the film committed to being a horror-comedy or straight horror, it would be stronger for it. Finally, the story had a major flaw in that it was not convincing why the characters would continue to stay in or return to this house. In one scene Sally is picked up in a car by her father and taken back to her home. The entire audience emitted a loud groan. Intelligent plot devices are a necessity if the main character returns to the scene of the horror time and time again.
I don’t think I will be watching Don’t be Afraid of the Dark anytime soon, but in the end I think that the film will find a group of movie-goers that will enjoy it. It is certainly for the casual horror fan as there is nothing truly terrifying about the film, however these casual horror fans should not be of the squeamish variety due to the few scenes that contain some uncomfortable moments.