Tory Nixey’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011) – starring Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce – takes the traditional haunted house tale and injects it with dark, mythological venom. With some screenplay help from Guillermo del Toro, director of the incredible Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), the film revels in the ominous territory of the unseen – that is until something begins to creep out from the dark.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark follows Sally (Bailee Madison), a young girl whose mother has sent her to live with her father, Alex (Pearce), in an old mansion which he is professionally restoring with his new girlfriend, Kim (Holmes). Sally begs to return home, but is met with empty reassurances. Despite Kim’s efforts to bond with her, Sally remains insecure, isolated and deeply unhappy. However, she is most definitely not alone.
After some time, it becomes apparent that there are beings in the house who desperately desire her attention. They whisper her name in the night, leave trinkets under her pillow and implore her to come down to the basement to play. This is sweet music to the ears of a lonely young child, and Sally is eager to obey their requests. However, once a certain door has been opened and the beings are unleashed upon the house, it quickly becomes evident that they would like something far more sinister than a little playtime.
Based on the 1973 teleplay of the same name, the film now comes with the addition of a much younger protagonist. Madison performs brilliantly and excels during moments of fear, portraying an inconceivable situation with truth and depth. However, the adult casting is somewhat more problematic. Pearce has little to do and his appearance often feels closer to a cameo than the portrayal of a cohesive character. Holmes serves a little better, but it is hard to shake the notion that the emotional core of the story could have been better served by unknown actors.
The extent of Del Toro’s involvement is difficult to pin down, but his influence can clearly be observed in the thematic and visual styling of the piece. For instance, along with an altered protagonist comes the intertwining of a suitable dark mythology. This is typical of Del Toro’s work and, despite seeming a little underdeveloped, contributes a sense of depth, as the widely known fairytale hints at consequences which stretch beyond the present time and location.
The film also features some extremely well-executed horror set pieces. An uncomfortable bathtub sequence and an adrenaline fuelled dalliance in a library will leave audiences desperately awaiting rescue. Though perhaps a little contrived, the set pieces are marked by well-timed delivery, as Nixey first works to reassure the audience of the safety of an environment before gradually introducing danger into an otherwise pleasant situation.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is not without its flaws, but they should be relatively easy to ignore. Overall, the film is solidly creepy fun with occasional moments of frightening brilliance.