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Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Dir: Troy Nixey

Rating: 3.4/5.0

FilmDistrict

99 Minutes

There’s a reason movie nerds love Guillermo del Toro. Not only does he get horror movies and have strong opinions about them, but he has a love for the genre unparalleled by other filmmakers. Michael Bay wants to show the world the size of his cinematic dick while del Toro wants to tell stories. It’s the difference between hedonism and passion.

While Troy Nixey directed Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, del Toro’s fingerprints are all over it. Considering he was co-writer (with Matthew Robbins) and producer of a project he had been trying to get off the ground for years (a remake of a TV movie that spooked him as a kid), it’s hard not to consider it part of his oeuvre. The little girl at the center of the film is reminiscent of the lead character in Pan’s Labyrinth while the decidedly old-school setting of the spooky mansion setting speaks to the work of someone who’s watched more than just the last decade’s batch of Saw imitators. At times, however, it seems like Nixey, del Toro and Robbins seek to make a film with vague resemblances to latter-day horror tropes. The film opens with a prologue featuring a man crudely yanking the teeth out of his maid’s mouth, but the period dress and set design – not to mention Nixey’s refusal to belabor the point and linger on the act – all ensure the affair has the elegance of a James Whale horror picture rather than the luridness of a torture movie.

Soon we cut to the present where we meet little girl Sally (Bailee Madison), the spitting image for one of those creepy kids Japanese horror remakes love so much. However, she’s not all that supernatural – just weird by kid standards and heavily medicated by human standards. Sally’s come to live with her father (Guy Pearce, playing the skeptical dad quite believably) and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes, more engaging than one’s come to expect) as they try to renovate the mansion where we just saw some amateur dentistry. Of course, nobody believes poor Sally when whispers from the secret, long-sealed-away basement start taking an interest in her.

While the film takes place in an expansive manor, it uses that space to create the same tension that one might get from Paranormal Activity, making Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark a blending of the “domestic horror affects family” subgenre, but played out on a much grander scale than that type of film usually allows, with its big house, the threat of ages-old goblin-things with a fetish for children’s teeth and a amusingly ludicrous (but refreshingly old school, if that makes any sense) backstory.

You especially see del Toro’s influence in these creatures. They’re memorable, move like real animals and the film doesn’t blow its wad by trotting them out early. Instead, we hear their creepy whispers and experience them bumping in the night without getting a full view of them until well into the movie. When we finally see one up close, it’s the payoff to a legitimately tense moment as the camera takes the little girl’s point of view while she searches under her sheets for the critter poking around down there. After only seeing silhouettes, movements and shapes in the dark, it’s a tremendous reveal that makes it worth the wait.

But having del Toro in your corner doesn’t mean as much if you’re not a talented filmmaker. Nixey, making his debut here, shows a lot of promise. Working with veteran cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, Nixey brings his experience as a comic book artist to the film’s visuals, creating striking shots and dynamic camerawork to make for a creepy, visually entertaining film. Nixey knows how to make a rectangular picture look good, and never lets the film fail in that regard.

Most importantly, it delivers with some good scares as Nixey and company create a tense atmosphere that lingers after the film is over. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is the sort of film that has you looking over your shoulder after it’s done, even though you’re old enough to know that there’s nothing waiting for you in the dark corners just beyond your field of vision. Or is there…?

by Danny Djeljosevic

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