Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark to see how spectacularly a horror movie can fail by squandering fantastic sets, a game cast of talented actors, genuinely creepy creatures, a fascinating mythology and its well-loved but cheesy TV movie source material.
Guillermo Del Toro’s name is all over the film, and he was reportedly terrified of the 1973 Kim Darby film about a couple that moves into an old mansion and discovers that they aren’t alone. However, other than his Pan’s Labyrinth-inspired creatures and secret gardens, his contribution as writer is less an homage than an insult to the original. Those unfamiliar with just about every other haunted house movie ever made will be suitably scared by director Troy Nixey’s heavy reliance on gotcha scares, but the rest of the audience will be scratching their heads over how Del Toro could mess up this badly.
Set in a gloriously ornate Tudor mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark opens in the 19th century with a back story of the first owner, a renowned nature illustrator like John Audubon who disappeared along with his young child after killing a chambermaid in some sort of bizarre sacrifice. This scene reveals too much about what is in the basement, and establishes the film’s habit of making the absolute worst choices in storytelling.
In the present, the mansion has fallen into disrepair and is being meticulously restored by Alex Hurst (Guy Pearce), who apparently didn’t look closely enough at his labor of love to see a barely concealed basement with a huge glass atrium. His sullen daughter Sally (Bailee Madison) gets shipped to him and soon opens up a tightly sealed ash pit in the basement, because that’s what little girls do. Soon a mini-army of tiny ghouls are raising hell and plotting to drag Sally to hell, or at least down the basement ash pit. It has something to do with them craving kiddie teeth. No one believes Sally, and then they do, but still they stay in the devil house. What are they waiting for? "Trollmageddon", of course, and the little invaders don’t disappoint.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has one of the sloppiest scripts in recent memory. Major events are dropped from scene to scene, including a party scene where one of the creatures gets squished, losing an arm on the floor and no one notices. If you’re looking for a good remake of an old horror movie, make it a Fright Night instead.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.