Sony // 2011 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // December 23rd, 2011
Come and play.
The original 1973 version of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark may be one of the best television movies ever to air, but it isn't without its problems. Namely, that problem is actress Kim Darby (True Grit), who is as lame as she ever is in the lead role. Nearly four decades later, with an old love for the production, Guillermo Del Toro (Cronos) decided to write and produce a remake. Ordinarily, I'd turn my nose up at such activity, but this remake isn't all bad and it doesn't feature Kim Darby, which is always a plus.
In order to get the cover of a magazine, architect Alex (Guy Pearce, L.A. Confidential) and his interior designer girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes, The Gift) invest in the rundown former estate of a famous artist who mysteriously disappeared years before. Just as they have everything nearly ready for show, Alex's young daughter, Sally (Bailee Madison, Bridge to Terabithia, discovers a basement that had long been sealed over. Once it is opened, though, Sally begins to hear voices whispering her name. Nobody believes her, but before she knows it, a bunch of little rat men are after her and they want either her teeth or her life.
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark isn't great horror, but it is one of the better remakes to come from the glut of unoriginal thinking the genre devolved into. While that really isn't saying very much, the film does have its moments. Bailey Madison is excellent as Sally, whose disaffection really works for the character and allows her to have some growth. In this way, it's better than the original, which supplants a kooky housewife for a child and making the conflict inherently more believable (plus, it's kind of sad for Kim Darby, whose acting talents have been outstripped by children in a second straight remake). Her performance makes the film, though Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes are pretty solid themselves.
The plot itself isn't too bad; it's self-contained within the confines of the house, it has an ancient and diabolical history with origins in old faerie lore, and they stay on task in delivering the horror without submitting to worthless subplots. The direction is fairly efficient and the cinematography is warm with autumn colors, but still feels creepy somehow. Guillermo Del Toro's frequent child-in-peril themes work well and first time director Troy Nixey does an adequate job and shows some promise in his debut.
The big problem with the film is in the execution of the story, which reveals too much and doesn't take advantage of what it has at hand. It starts with the backstory, telling what happened to the original owner of the house. The scene itself is effective and has the most gruesome event of the movie, but in showing us the fate of the artist, it tells us in no uncertain terms what the danger is for the family. Once young Sally sees the basement and hears the voices, we already know what's coming. It hurts the suspense terribly, but not as much as the creatures. At the beginning, before they've been shown in full, they're kind of effective. After they've been released into the house, though, it winds up being a rodent infestation by things that look like a cross between a rat and your knife wielding great-grandfather. Individually, they don't look so bad, but together they're nearly as cheesy as the dudes in cheap suits from the original. It makes for a decidedly mixed experience, but one that isn't bad enough to hate.
>From Sony, the disc for Don't Be Afraid of the Dark fares pretty well technically, but is sorry on the extras front. The anamorphic image looks quite good for a standard definition transfer, with colors that are warm and deep black levels. There's an impressive level of detail throughout, especially in the outdoor scenes, where the fog looks really sharp. The sound also performs admirably, with the kind of separation you want from a horror film. The whispers and music are strong in the rear channels, building a good amount of atmosphere and adding significantly to the creepiness that isn't otherwise around in the story. The dialog and music are pretty good, though the levels are a little inconsistent right at the start of the film. The only extra on the disc is a twenty minute making-of featurette broken up into three chapters: one on the story, one on the set, and one on the creature construction. It has some reasonably interesting information, but it's barely above the basic HBO fluff piece.
While Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a decent remake of a TV movie I was never really in love with, it still has a lot of problems. It has some really strong performances, especially from Bailee Madison, but the story leaves a lot to be desired (as did the original), and they spend too much time showing the creatures, which aren't that great to begin with. It's decent entertainment, but ultimately a forgettable horror film.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site