If the story isn’t original it’s because it’s been done before, 30 years or so on TV in an era when American horror was at an all time high. Updated this time by Guillermo del Toro, who shares co-writing duties, but at the controls is first timer Troy Nixbey who turns in a polished and well paced genre piece about evil from within. There is plenty of style in this one though, aided by wonderful CGI and an inventive sound design; two of its strongest features. Of the three principals Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce and the young heroine Bailee Madison, it’s the ladies who do most of the screaming and soul searching. Pearce is rendered mute. The scene-stealers, however are the critters. Creepy and conniving little shits who get the films ‘best’ lines, imagine evil-talking racoons on crystal meth who haven’t slept for 200 years and who have a thing for teeth and you’re half-way there.
Style over substance seems to be the consensus here, and all the better for it. The characters had no chance against the magnificent grand gothic setting of this enormous wood panelled mansion house with its misty surrounds and the evil that resides. Here to uncover it for us is the young sally (Madison) who reluctantly comes to stay with her architect father (Pearce) and his new partner Kim, (the reluctant mother figure, Holmes). Nixey does a first rate job at using Sally’s natural curiousity to unravel the story in the same way the Toro did in Pan’s Labyrinth. The tension comes from the fact that you know she has uncovered something, unseen for the most part (denial) (Pearce), but heard nonetheless (maternal intuition) (Holmes), speaking in childish whispered tones (a creep factor of about 9), they tease Sally to ‘plaaaay’. The scattering sounds of claw feet on wooden and tiled floors a masterstroke in sound design with the photography perfectly complementing.
Unfortunately the plot is too conventional, the human characters stay well in the confines of stereotype, to take this film anywhere new. With such recognisable faces representing them the producers seem to feel that empathy is somehow instantly created with just their mere presence. Now that horror is more mainstream than ever, using celebrity types might just pull in a whole new type of audience. It’s a smart move.. Horror autuers might become like Woody Allen or Robert Altman, able to assemble celebrity ensembles in their ever greater visions. It worked for Tarantino in the 90’s with action thrillers. The missed opportunity here though is in not developing the evil critters. They don’t allude or stand for anything and thus stay one dimensional. Now more than ever evil needs to stand for something relevant. We know they existed for some time. The brilliant macabre opening sequence clearly lets us in on that. What might have been more sinister and just as unrealistic is for the creatures to develop some sort of stronger bond with their prey to get further inside our heads instead of just saying “come and play” in long whispered tones. But this one is more style than substance with enough of a scare to keep the lights on for a while…
Don’t be Afraid of the Dark creeps into cinemas 7th October 2011.
Director: Troy Nixey
Stars: Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison
Runtime: 99 min