Much like the scuttling, vicious threat that lies at the heart of this fantasy/horror from debut director Troy Nixey, ‘Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark’ is a curious beast. Co-written and produced by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy), this film, with its gothic setting, slightly twisted production design and folklore inspired creatures might be the perfect introduction to the Mexican maestro for younger viewers, were it not for the occasional flashes of violent horror that punctuate an otherwise creepy story of alienation and fear.
The set up isn’t startlingly original, as young Sally (Bailee Madison) is sent to live with her estranged father (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend (Katie Holmes) in the country mansion they are renovating. As countless such stories should attest, the combination of draughty old country piles and family troubles rarely result in lazy days of sunshine and lollipops for all and inevitably, the terrifying secrets of the mansion soon start to surface, in a largely well realised mash-up of styles evoking everything from ‘The Exorcist’ to ‘The Canterville Ghost’ with glimmers of the writer’s own ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’.
This diverse range of influences also means however that the film is in danger of suffering an identity crisis. On the surface, its child-centric plot that clashes sharply with moments of graphic horror firmly excludes young audiences while offering little that might hold the interest of adults. Thankfully, it is rescued from mediocrity by the presence of its leads. While Guy Pearce is a little underused, he nevertheless turns in a solid performance that avoids cliché, and Katie Holmes too is a surprisingly engaging lead, firmly banishing all memories of rather bland performances in ‘Dawson’s Creek’ and ‘Batman Begins’. Bailee Madison is the film’s real star however, portraying young Sally’s depression and fear so convincingly that I followed her story with rapt attention despite the overall familiarity of the plot.
As a director, Troy Nixey manages to avoid the temptation to ape his more famous producer’s style, juxtaposing del Toro’s fantasy inspired ideas with an overall tone and production design that is played relatively straight. Rather than reduce the impact of the film’s supernatural horror, the combination of un-natural threats with naturalistic settings actually serves to heighten its ghastliness. It’s just a shame the horror lacks conviction. There is also a potentially interesting point here, given that all of the characters live in such fear of the ‘real world’ (with concerns such as money, diet and medication), that they lack a proper respect for the supernatural until it’s too late. Sadly Nixey has missed a trick. Given that the truth of the threat the family faces is so clearly established, there is very little room for interpretation in the final denouement.
If this review has seemed a little ambiguous, this is perhaps a reflection of a film that is ultimately difficult to categorise. ‘Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark’ is a good but not great film, with one or two decent scares and a plot and cast that hold the interest with ease. I’ll say that while I sat enthralled in the human story, my date spent most of the running time watching between her fingers, surprising given that she is not easily scared by your typical horror fare. Perfect for the Autumn and Winter nights - watch it with someone you trust, and do be afraid of the dark, if only just a little.
Robert Barton-Ancliffe is gearing up for a zombie movie marathon this weekend.