Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011) — This article was originally published on 12ftdwende.com on 26 August 2011.

What does it mean for a movie to be scary? There’s a few different kind of scares that most modern horror films go for. The first and far most common kind is the jump scare. Rather self-explanatory: they are the kind of scares that make you jump… usually by something jumping out of nowhere. One of the big fake-out clichés is when a cat jumps out of nowhere FOR NO GOOD GOD DAMN REASON. Another one that gets used a lot of when someone opens the bathroom cabinet and when they shut it, something is reflected in the mirror that wasn’t there before (is there anyone left that doesn’t see that coming?). The second (debatably more artistic) kind is suspense. It usually comes from knowing something more than the characters know. A good example is in the recent Final Destination 5 when a nail falls onto a balance beam while a gymnast is doing her routine. Everyone watching the movie knows something is going to go wrong, but she keeps going about her routine blissfully unaware. It’s nerve-racking. Another way is when you know something is going to happen but don’t know when. Ti West’s retro-throwback film The House of the Devil is about 75% waiting for something to go down. It’s surprisingly more effective than you’d think. There’s phobic scares, but those are obviously person-specific. I lose my shit at the sight of FUCKING SPIDERS but other people might not mind. Some weirdoes even like the little fucking monsters. Lately cringe-horror is a big thing. Again, Final Destination 5 is a good example but a better one is probably the Saw films. Most people can’t see someone’s arm snap backwards without some kind of visceral reaction.

The hardest type of scare to define… is one I don’t really have a name for just yet. It’s when shit’s just scary. Today the Guillermo del Toro-produced remake of the 1973 made-for-television horror film Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was released. Del Toro intended it to be PG-13 so kids could see it. I am in agreement with Sr. del Toro that kids should see horror movies. Not the blood-and-tits kind or anything, but ghost stories and the like are a staple of growing up. I maintain that kids today are too sheltered. Hell, I was probably too sheltered when I was a kid too but it seems way worse these days. Anyway, the MPAA didn’t give the movie the desired PG-13 but an R instead. The reason they cited is “pervasive scariness.” Now there are two thoughts I have on this… The first is that that’s bullshit. The movie has very little blood (none of which really reaches the level of “gore”), no nudity, and no cursing. That nixes the big three reasons for R ratings these days. “Scariness” as a cause for an R rating is stupid. On the other hand that must mean the movie is pretty damn creepy, right?

Bailee Madison plays Sally Hirst, a girl who has been sent to live with her father. I hated this girl in the Adam Sandler comedy Just Go With It but she’s not bad here. Anyway her father Alex (Guy Pearse) is restoring an old house with his interior decorator girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes). Sally is uncomfortable in the new house and doesn’t get along very well with Kim, who makes an effort despite not being sure if she’s ready to be a stepmother. Shortly after arriving, Sally discovers a massive sealed-up basement in the house. She also hears voices coming from the furnace. They want to play with her. They don’t like the light. Mostly, they really want Sally to come into the furnace. We know from the film’s prologue (and from the trailers obviously) that these things are not friendly.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has a lot of the aforementioned scares in it. There are jumps. There’s suspense. There’s at least one cringe moment. The design of the house lends a sort of off-putting atmosphere to the proceedings. The design of the creatures is really great (as to be expected in any film del Toro is involved with). Overall, the film is missing something though. Maybe if you were watching it at home with all the lights off it would be scary, but I saw it in a theater at midnight with a bunch of people (some of whom were drunk, some of whom were on dates, etc.) and a lot of things that maybe should have been scary were just kind of silly. The creatures’ attempts to talk Sally down to the basement reminded me of that old Saturday Night Live sketch with Chevy Chase as the land shark. I’m surprised they didn’t offer her a candy-gram. There’s also the fact that Sally is kind of an idiot. You can write off a certain amount of her bad decisions (her initial desire to befriend these unseen creatures, for example) on childish naïveté but once the creatures are clearly revealed as hostile she just does a lot of stupid things. They are creatures who are physically harmed by light and yet when this girl gets attacked in one scene, she doesn’t TURN THE GOD DAMN LIGHTS ON!

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark could overcome a lot of its flaws if it wasn’t so self-serious. Last week’s Fright Night, which I am on record as liking a lot, isn’t particularly frightening either but it is a lot of fun (and I hate that it’s not doing well at the box office; go it see it, god dammit!). I can’t help but wonder how different things would have been if Guillermo del Toro had directed instead of just produced. While not everything the man does is golden (see: Mimic), there’s no question the man is a massive creative talent. Troy Nixey has never made a feature film before this one, having primarily worked as a comic book artist (and, to his credit, the design of the movie is great). I can’t really recommend this movie, but at the same time I do want it to make money. Guillermo del Toro just had a pretty disappointing experience trying to get a film version of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness made. If this R-rated films pulls in some serious bank, studios might reconsider and give del Toro the chance to make a movie that could be AMAZING. So if you go to see Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, don’t think of it so much as buying a movie ticket as investing in a chance to see Lovecraft fully realized in a major motion picture because THAT movie might actually scare you.

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