Review: ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ (2011)

An intimate ankle biter vs. ankle biters battle of flashbulbs, sharp things, and suspense.

Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) are busily restoring Blackwood Manor, the former home of a famous artist. Alex’s daughter from a previous marriage, Sally (Bailee Madison), arrives to spend some time with her father, an arrangement with the girl’s mother to help curb impulsiveness (a “disorder” for which the little girl is already taking prescribed medication). After reluctantly settling into her new room, Sally hears something whispering her name from inside the walls of the old house promising friendship and someone to play with. It isn’t long before Sally begins to understand that these creatures are decidedly unfriendly, but can she convince her father and his girlfriend of the danger before it’s too late?

Produced and half written by Guillermo del Toro, this remake of a 1973 made-for-television film translates well to the larger screen. The story centers around the character of Sally (putting the weight of the film squarely on the shoulders of Bailee Madison), relegating the adult cast to supporting players. At first glance, the film doesn’t seem to warrant the R rating until it becomes clear how horrible these little things really are and what they’re impressively capable of. The one thing undermining the entire production is its familiarity; we’ve all seen small things doing mischief before, and fans of del Toro will certainly recognize the eerie similarity between these chatterers and the ones unleashed in Hellboy: The Golden Army by Prince Nuada at the auction house.

There’s a lot of good done here. While Guy Pearce seemed a bit of a waste of talent, he lends levity to a role that might have seemed more like a throwaway portrayed by another actor. This is also the most interesting thing Katie Holmes has gotten to do on screen since Go, and it’s nice to see her doing something motherly even if not playing a mother. Besides a cast of computer-generated critters, Bailee Madison is both convincing and determined enough to play victim and potential survivor, even to the point of practically cheering for her to step up and finally gives the little monsters the what-for they have coming. The rest of the cast are footnote characters, and that was a bit disappointing only because del Toro usually gives everyone a character moment to shine.

As the mythology for these little monsters comes to light, one of the better revelations was the hint that the Vatican not only were aware of such creatures but had even bartered a deal with them at one point in the past. It’s little details like these that make the mind perform imaginary cartwheels, but it’s too bad there weren’t more such opportunities used. With the story taking liberties that seem to only exist at the whim of the plot (the inclusion of an antiquated instant camera to provide a finite number of flash shots against light-sensitive monsters, for one), the plot is also devoid of many real twists or turns (opening flashback, medicated troubled youth, ghastly things seen that adults won’t believe, and a secret history covered up).

Even when the evidence goes from overwhelmingly convincing to simply irrefutable, viewers are expected to believe that these reasonably intelligent folks still continue to underestimate their foes. Films such as Joe Dante’s Gremlins and Small Soldiers as well as the more recent existential CG sock puppet film 9 have better explored the craftiness of small things that are great in numbers and devilishly clever. With a hollow final scene that seems to only exist to set up any possible sequel, it isn’t enough to undo all the good that came before it. It is enough, however, to remind us of better del Toro fare employing similar ideas, specifically the underrated Pan’s Labyrinth.

(a three skull recommendation out of four)

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