Call me old fashioned, but sometimes I think the modern day slasher formula has ruined the contemporary horror film. While some movie makers adhere to the Hitchcockian pillars of suspense and atmosphere, it seems far easier to scare by showing rather than implying. On one hand I can understand: dread, especially of the supernatural variety, can be so difficult to manufacture consistently. It’s far easier, and far more instantly gratifying, to scare the audience on the most basic of grounds: our fear of dying, especially in sudden and violent fashion. Who needs slow-building tension when we can just show a bunch of tourists getting tortured and then offed in all its gory detail?
Maybe I’m a poster child for desensitization, but I have never been drawn to the Saws and Hostels of the world. It’s not that I find the violence to be overwhelming; on the contrary hard gore movies usually leave me bored unless they’re of the comedic variety. Give me a Ring or Mothman Prophecies any day of the week. Thankfully (and unsurprisingly giving Guillermo del Toro’s track record), Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a movie steeped in the classic tropes of the supernatural thriller rather than the modern day slasher, a film where atmosphere is king and where your own anticipation provides most of the suspense.
I hesitate to actually classify the movie as a horror film, however. Like his previous works The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark feels more like a dark, modern fairytale than anything else. The world and story are so closely tied to folklore and our deep-seated childhood fears of the dark and the unknown that it would feel right at home in a collection of tales by the Brothers Grimm. And indeed, the film really captures that dread we all no doubt felt as children as we huddled under the covers, eyes peaking ever so slightly over the edges of the blanket, as we waited anxiously to hear the fates of the likes of Hansel, Gretel, and Red Riding Hood.
Del Toro and director Troy Nixey made a bold move in casting 11-year-old Bailee Madison as the lead character, especially given that the original 1973 made-for-TV movie on which the screenplay is based centered on a young housewife, not a little girl. So many things can go wrong when working with young actors, especially in more serious genres, where the entire dramatic weight of the film rests on elementary aged shoulder. In this case, however, the gamble works splendidly, and young Bailee anchors the cast. Her character Sally is certainly not the typical precocious child: she’s caught in the middle of a messy marital dispute between her parents and medicated for anxiety by her protective mother. It’s an unexpectedly dark role for such a young performer, but Bailey rises to the occasion. And in typical del Toro fashion, the use of child as audience conduit enhances both the believability of the supernatural elements and the terror that comes with them as they are slowly revealed.
Even with the aid of a child narrator, however, del Toro’s films have always required a certain suspension of disbelief, and the caveat is especially pertinent for Don’t Be Afraid. While I had no trouble letting myself get sucked into the fairy tale world on screen, the fact is that those who require a certain degree of anchoring in reality in cinema may find themselves chuckling at the absurdity of it all. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that the latter part of the movie is essentially “creature feature”, and like so many films before it, the second half lives or dies by how much leeway you’ll grant Nixey and del Toro. If you’re willing to buy into the fantasy world (which is quite effectively established, especially thanks to a brilliant cold opening that introduces the supernatural element that lurks in the cavernous old house, arguably the film’s second most important character), then Don’t Be Afraid will have you on the edge of your seat and checking the dark corners of your house for the next couple nights. But if you can’t make the leap with the filmmakers (or overlook the occasional CGI hiccup), you’ll leave the theater sorely disappointed.
The rest of the cast is passable. Katie Holmes, as the sweet and well-meaning new mother figure for Sally, did well enough that I didn’t constantly think Tom Cruise every time I saw her, and really, that’s all she can ever hope for at this point in her career. Guy Pearce plays the distracted and skeptical father as well as such a role can be played, though he’s certainly not memorable. Jack Thompson boast the only other sizeable role with his portayal of Harris the Groundskeeper, whose experience with the house (and its dark secret) is integral to the plot, even if most of his role is simply being gruff and telling everyone to stay out of the basement.
The plot itself is typical fairy tale, meaning it’s simplistic yet effective. There’s the slow build up as we learn the true nature of the monsters and what exactly they want, and an expected final confrontation that’s fulfilling if a bit predictable. There’s a somewhat clever final twist, at least (listen to the voices in the last scene), but this is not a movie you go to see for it’s intricate plotting. No, if you wind up watching this movie, it’s to soak in the atmosphere and to feel your skin slowly crawl because of it.
Will you end up liking Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark? It really depends on what kind of movie you go in expecting to see. If you’re a fan of del Toro’s previous works, and don’t mind a slow-burning supernatural thriller with more than a little folklore thrown in for good measure, then by all means go check it out. But if the title and trailers had you expecting a gasp-a-minute, lightning fast product for the MTV generation, I am almost certain you’ll be disappointed. Still, in a world where the simple, effective form of the fairy tale has been all but forgotten, it’s refreshing to see del Toro still so willing embrace what might otherwise seem silly with such earnestness and passion, even if it runs counter to modern movie trends.
Side note: This is by far the tamest R-rated movie I have ever seen. There is no sexual content, hardly any profanity, an amazingly low body count, and only a half dozen scenes of any substantial gore or violence. Apparently the MPAA rated the movie because of its pervasively dark atmosphere and themes (enhanced by the young main character), which sets an odd arbitrary precedent.
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