There are very few films out at the moment that haven’t been touched in some way by Guillermo del Toro, a master of horror that has managed to successfully transition his career in Mexico to the dizzying heights of Hollywood, following the Cannes Film Festival win of his debut feature Cronos. Yet even one of the most influential directors of the last ten years, as indicated by a wave of Pan’s Labyrinth copycats, got his inspiration from somewhere. Del Toro has long cited the 1973 TV movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark as one of his biggest influences, so it should come as no surprise to see his name on the production and writing credits of this latest remake, the debut directorial effort of Troy Nixey.
Young Sally (Bailee Madison, Just Go With It) is sent to live with her architect father Alex (Guy Pearce, 33 Postcards) who is estranged from Sally’s mother. Alex has poured all of his money and passion into renovating a house with a fair amount of history, and is having a relationship with his live-in colleague Kim (Katie Holmes, Jack and Jill). When Sally discovers a hitherto unseen basement, everybody is excited to uncover its secrets except for groundskeeper Harris (Jack Thompson, Mao’s Last Dancer). Once unearthed, Sally begins to hear things and feels strangely compelled to return to the depths of the house, where a strange group of critters may or may not live.
Director Nixey got his big break when he sent his short film Latchkey’s Lament to del Toro for advice, and found himself in charge of an international cast of actors. Indeed, it is pleasing to see Gary McDonald (aka Norman Gunston) in a suitably creepy pre-credits sequence. The material here is familiar and slender, undoubtedly drawing as much from co-writer (with Mimic‘s Matthew Robbins) del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth as the original film. The fairies that populate this world are familiar, as is the small child being lured into a fantasy world to escape the broken home she has been brought into against her will. In the first act, at least, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark fares favourably in comparison with del Toro’s more famous film, creating an atmosphere of oxygen-sucking terror. It is the unknown that works in the film’s favour, and with the exception of a bit of heavy-handed violence in the opening scenes, Nixey’s hand remains incredibly restrained in these first crucial moments, drawing the audience in with what can’t be seen. As we hear little creatures scurrying around in the background, not to mention a small blue bear seemingly coming to life, we become intrigued as much as we are unnerved.
Like so many horror films before it, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark comes undone by showing us too much. Once the film quite literally shines a light on the things that go bump in the night, the question shifts from ‘what’ to ‘when’, and all of the tension in the room simply becomes one based on inevitability. This is not to say that the film isn’t a decent bit of horror, for it does a successful job for the most part of tapping into those hidden fears that have lurked in the corner of our eyes. It is just unfortunate that del Toro and Nixey fall back on the familiar when the unexpected is most needed, or else this would have been one of the better horror flicks in recent years.