Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

A little over a decade ago, a group of friends and I developed a love of foreign films.  It all began with a recommendation from my friend Tijae who said we absolutely had to go see this German film called Run Lola, Run with her at the movie theater down the street from our high school.  What followed was a dizzying year in which we saw any foreign import that flowed into the small art-house theaters of Orange County.  From Run Lola, Run to the original Japanese Ringu, we devoured anything we could find playing on a big screen.  It was through this random burst of teenage cinematic exploration that I discovered a film called El Espinazo Del Diablo, or The Devil’s Backbone.  I was immediately taken with the filmmakers amazing way of exploiting both folkloric ideals and crafty visual storytelling to unravel a compelling and chilling story of terror on the screen before me.  His script was smart, full of mythology and intelligence.  Stylistically, he captured the absolute vision of all the things that haunted my nightmares as a child.  So it is absolutely no surprise that now, a decade later, Guillermo del Toro is a household name.  His unique vision in the world of fantasy and horror has propelled him to a place in which he can not only make his own films with near carte blanche, but he can also find other young filmmakers and give them the opportunity to apply their unique talents on the big screen.  The most recent of his finds is Troy Nixey who, with Del Toro’s help, has brought us Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark which may be the best horror movie of the year.

Sally (Bailee Madison) is a sad little girl.  Her mother, whom she adores, has grown weary of parenthood and sent her to live with her preoccupied father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) in the crumbling remains of Blackwood Manor, a house that deserves a starring credit in and of itself.  Alex and Kim are restoring the ancient mansion to bring both fame and cash flow to the couple who are trying to reinvigorate Alex’s floundering architectural career.  Sally, reluctant to accept her new life or her new surrogate mother, mopes around the large estate until one afternoon, she stumbles upon the large overhead window of a yet-undiscovered underground room which houses a sealed off fireplace that just screams “DO NOT OPEN” to any fan of the haunted house genre.  Voices emanate from behind the grate, begging Sally to free them with the promise of friendship.  Steeped in loneliness, Sally eventually relinquishes, freeing an army of tiny teeth-eating beasties that quickly turn on her.  She tries to warn the adults, but her cries are dismissed as ramblings of a lonely and sick little girl.  As the terrifying little creatures move closer to their goal and the story of the home’s original owner comes to light, the film picks up speed and suspense.

And that is all I’m going to tell you.  The way the story behind Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark unfolds is part of what made it such a wonderful film-going experience.  The film manages to build in a way that is both predictably comfortable and ominously creepy.  Much like the little creatures who reside in the basement, the movie knows when to lay in wait, building tension and suspense, and when to strike in order to best pay off the terror.

First time feature film director Troy Nixey does a great job of bringing some old-fashioned atmosphere to a film that easily could have suffered from the modern day practice of providing fears through “boo” moments.  The film, although a bit predictable at points, feels less like a retread of the same old haunted house movie and more like a creepy story told around a campfire which is somehow scarier because you know where it might be going.  A lot of the credit should also go to Del Toro and his co-writer Matthew Robbins who brilliantly infuse some smart folklore into the story which, while going over the heads of most of the audience I saw it with, provided the movie with some of its most interesting mythology.  Sometimes, the origins of the fantasy creatures we are all familiar with is much darker then most people realize and Del Toro shamelessly exploits this fact to give the film’s scary little creatures more bite (cue laughter from those who have already seen the movie).  Add to that a blistering and awesome score from Marco Beltrami, and you’ve got the makings of an awesome production team.

The cast also brings a lot to the table, allowing the audience to take the film as seriously as it deserves to be.  Pearce is often cartoonishly dismissive, but ultimately plays the skeptic that most people would be given the circumstances.  Holmes gives one of the best performances of her career, which isn’t saying much, but she does make Kim relatively believable.  Whats more, the emotional damage she conveys as Kim makes her willingness to give Sally the benefit of the doubt convincing, making her search for the truth feel dictated by character and not out of necessity for plot advancement.  The real winner of the bunch, however, is Bailee Madison.  Though the various trailers and commercials make this out to be a Katie Holmes vehicle, it is actually Madison who shoulders the biggest burden in this film.  She shows a graceful blend of childlike curiosity, fear and true maturity.  Unlike many children in movies like this, Sally isn’t one to run.  Though she fears her tormenters, she arms herself and plans to fight them off if they attack.  Madison’s performance was strong enough that I have decided to completely overlook her annoying turn in Just Go With It, which I now attribute to that films horrible execution and not Madison’s ability.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark isn’t a movie for everyone.  Its charming blend of folklore and terror makes for a movie that is much more The Others then Paranormal Activity, and I think its far better for it.  While “boo” moments disappear almost immediately, good atmosphere will stick to your clothes and hair like cigarette smoke, leaving lingering thoughts long after the movie is over.  And while I feel the creature’s cover may have been blown a little earlier then I would have liked, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is an excellent effort at bringing us all something that will stick with us beyond the end credits.

RATING:  7.5/10

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~ by Andrew Craig on August 28, 2011.

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