Apparently, Guillermo del Toro has been itching to make this one for years. In his youth, John Newland’s 1973 haunted house tale became a by-word for ‘creepy’ between himself and friends. Having secured the rights to produce his own version of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010) over a decade since, del Toro’s adaptation finally made its debut here the UK at this year’s Film4 FrightFest, directed by newcomer Troy Nixey.
A cunning mix of the classic ‘spooky old house’ scenario and del Toro’s own fondness for turning cutesy fairy tales in on themselves, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark tells the story of Sally (Bailee Madison), a nine year old girl sent away by her slightly paranoid mother to live with her high-flying father (Guy Pearce) and his attractive younger girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) in a new property the two of them are developing. As is oft the case with creepy old houses, though, it soon emerges that not everything is not quite as it should be and that the aging residence is home to some unlikely rodents.
Although the film has been written and produced by del Toro, he’s left the direction to Troy Nixey, whose only other credit is the self-penned short Latchkey’s Lament (2007). Despite his limited experience, Nixey demonstrates a great capability behind the camera, producing a confident and concise visual narrative that broods with tension throughout.
Combine with that two great performances from Madison (who already boasts an impressive career for a twelve year-old) and Pearce and a perfectly acceptable outing from Holmes and you’ll not be surprised to find you have something quite entertaining.
Where Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark seems to fall apart, however, is in the screenplay. While it breezes confidently through the first two acts it stumbles in third and never quite picks itself up again. The tension builds steadily through the first two thirds, but peaks well before the finish leaving the last half-hour to kick its heels. As such, the final showdown turns up like a late guest; knocking back the drinks and dancing by itself while everyone else is pulling on their coats.
It’s frustrating, because if the film makers could have decided which of the two penultimate sequences they preferred and let the other one hit the cutting room floor (to be crowbarred into the DVD special edition if all else fails) it would have given that finale the punch it lacked.
Nonetheless, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark still packs some great scares, affecting performances and excellent special effects. The reveal of the mysterious antagonists is handled with the kind of patience that is seldom seen in modern horror and is a timely reminder of the value of that old adage ‘less is more’. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark works well as a whole, and should leave you satisfyingly unable to comply to its titular injunction: best viewed with the lights off.