"What is perhaps more strange is that the creatures are never pleasant, entrancing, or inviting. Their maniacally hushed, whispery voices seeping from a dusty ash pit undoubtedly resemble a children’s nightmares, not their unique opportunity for fantastical escape. Why a young, scared girl follows creepy voices into a basement and down an ash pit where she finds a pile of teeth is a mysterious concept, even taking account of Sally’s family circumstances."
by James Hansen
Produced and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, Troy Nixey’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a near carbon copy of del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. A young girl, Sally (Bailee Madison), is pushed into unfortunate circumstances – a cross-country move in with her architect father, Alex (Guy Pearce) and Kim his interior designer girlfriend (Katie Holmes). Putting the finishing touches on an important redesign, the house’s strange history is buried literally beneath its surface. Among the remnants of the creepy, yet refurbished house, Sally finds the possibility of escape within a fantasy world of creatures who, unlike her parents, want her and need her.
Unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, Sally’s escape appears as misplaced. Kim shows Sally the real imaginative wonders of the house (and the film’s expectedly solid production design) – lush gardens, expanding mazes, and a small pool filled with fish from Japan. However, Sally, still drawn towards the calls of the creatures, falls deeper into trouble as her curiosity soon leads to violent acts around the house. What is perhaps more strange is that the creatures are never pleasant, entrancing, or inviting. Their maniacally hushed, whispery voices seeping from a dusty ash pit undoubtedly resemble a children’s nightmares, not their unique opportunity for fantastical escape. Why a young, scared girl follows creepy voices into a basement and down an ash pit where she finds a pile of teeth is a mysterious concept, even taking account of Sally’s family circumstances.
Nonetheless, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’s first half successfully establishes a moody, destructive atmosphere. As light wind blows through the shafts of the basement, Nixey allows the film to linger among the chilled, strange spaces. The black hole of the open ash pit signals the incoming, unexpected horror. These brief moments are among the film’s most successful. As Sally, Bailee Madison performs with a distanced, quizzical gaze as her ambivalent pouts turn into genuine terror. Madison embodies the film’s dark, dreary tone. Perhaps entranced by her own fear, Sally’s fragile psyche begins to wear down as the creatures’ presence becomes more prominent.
And, as is becoming more typical, the reveal of the creatures derails the film. The story’s most basic logic – the weakness of the creatures is light – is bent, abused, and reveals itself as a worthless plank. In what seems to be a critical set piece – pulled from the Silence of the Lambs playbook – Sally attempts to create visual evidence of the creatures. Yet, this extended sequence amount to only mild annoyance for the hostile creatures and the seemingly important, late-addition subplot is dropped. What is more, the creature’s capabilities multiply as they slowly shift from strange voices to knife-wielding bastards who can turn off lights and bound people with ropes. This creates an unnecessary imbalance between the opposing forces and ultimately flatlines the film’s final act. Even in the standard expository visit to the library amount to a recognition of truth, but no new knowledge to bring forward. Without a weakness and a mechanism for escape, the story and the film drag to an inevitable, uninspired conclusion. Once again, mystery and dread are abandoned in favor of nonsensical screeches, cheap reveals, and swelling music. Obsessed with their creatures, Nixey and del Toro merely organize scenes rather than letting the film naturally develop. This leaves the wonders of the film’s first half buried under the surface of a surprisingly standard movie in desperate need of redesign.