When Guillermo del Toro‘s name is attached to a project that usually means it’s going to be pretty good. If the story is stale or the characters just aren’t doing it for you then you know he’ll make up for it with the scenery, but this time visionary director del Toro hands over his script to newcomer Troy Nixey. Nixey victoriously secures the visual feel of a del Toro production, but for every strong moment of true terror there’s a long stretch of drab dialogue. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark offers a healthy supply of scares, but their unbalanced with the rest of the film.
Sally (Bailee Madison) moves in with her father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes). Alex and Kim are in the middle of restoring an old house and Sally’s mother can’t seem to handle child depression, so she ships Sally off to her father for the time being. Alex is focused on opening this house and re-establishing his career while Kim attempts to form a motherly relationship with Sally. It’s a triangle of emotions and each character deals with it in their own way.
Alex neglects all responsibility, thinking that if you just ignore a problem long enough it will go away. Kim prefers talking it over and learning to understand each other. Sally being the child of the family decides it’s best to hold in her emotions because no one will give her the light of day to express them.
Things get worse when they discover an old basement in the house. An ash pit is revealed and Sally being a curious child opens it without caution. As the days continue, small creatures start appearing throughout the house. They’re intentions aren’t specific, but one thing is for sure; they’re dangerous. They start to persuade Sally into coming down into the basement in hopes of capturing her and bringing her into their ash pit. The more Sally tries to alert her father Alex the more he pushes her into a corner. Finally, Kim starts to take an interest in Sally’s situation.
It doesn’t take much time to realize Guillermo del Toro‘s hands are involved in the film. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark features a strong child character and even stronger family ties like most of his previous films. It’s obvious that del Toro had a huge part in not only writing this film, but directing it. Troy Nixey takes the final credit, but everything from the scenery to the creepy atmosphere feels like classic del Toro. It’s odd though, because the weakest part of the films structure is the only part that has del Toro’s name officially attached.
The writing doesn’t feel fully developed. The characters of Sally and Kim are fine because they display weakness and understanding. By the end of the film both characters accomplish something, but the same can’t be said about Alex. He’s an annoying and irresponsible parent at the beginning of the film and a completely clueless father at the end of the film. The only thing he comes to terms with is the fact that he has a daughter and that he should probably listen to her when she comes to him with problems.
Guy Pearce isn’t to blame because he plays the character well. He’s selfish and even more childish than Sally and he does a fine job articulating that, but something about his character feels underdeveloped. Katie Holmes and Bailee Madison help hide the films weakness by providing two dynamic performances and Nixey’s team of VFX people give the creature’s hairy details and nasty looking faces to keep your mind focused on them and less on Alex.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is effective in getting a few honest scares. The buildup and delivery is perfect. One of the most advertised scenes featuring young Sally unraveling the covers only to find a monster is just as scary in the movie even though you know it’s coming. The surrounding elements of the film like the house, the basement, the music and the lighting all help enhance the experience, but the wobbly story pokes out like a sore thumb making the film feel somewhat forgettable.
Sony takes command and releases Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark on Blu-Ray with a faithfully dark 1080p transfer that is consistently detailed and fine-tuned. The film is most powerful during the scenes containing darkness and the transfer shines (I know that sounds weird) when the lights are turn off. Black levels are deep and the daytime scenes show off more of the natural colors and detail like rain, grass and skin texture. Skin tones range from pale to warm, depending on the character and the setting of the particular scene.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track surrounds you with the creature’s voices. Every soft spoken whisper can be heard from the back channels as the dialogue and score come out the front. The films scary little monsters make the audio track a nail-biting experience. When the creatures aren’t on the screen or lurking in the background the track is mostly centered on the front channels with little activity.
The film comes with a short three-part making-of documentary that highlights a few parts of the production. Added up the three features are around 20 minutes long. In addition to that the film comes with an art gallery and a UltraViolet Digital Copy. Here’s a full list of extras below.
- Don’t Be Afraid… Three-Part Making-Of Documentary (HD): This is a three-part doc split these sections: The Story, Blackwood’s Mansion and The Creatures. Each section briefly discusses del Toro’s influences on the project and how the cast and crew adapted ideas for certain parts of the films production. It’s too short and very basic stuff.
- Conceptual Art Gallery (HD): A mini art gallery featuring random photos of creature and set designs.
- UltraViolet Digital Copy
I think Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a film best experienced in a dark theater with an active audience. The film relies heavily on build-up scares and those moments are best achieved with complete silence and loud speakers. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark loses its effect when watched at home on a normal setup, but it’s still worth a rent. It’s a throwback horror film that takes you back to the creepier days when the less you saw the more you were scared. Troy Nixey does a decent job directing a del Toro film, but it’s the writing that’s the breaking point of the film. The characters are too simple and basic for any real connections to be made. Also, the ending payoff really doesn’t even feel like a payoff.
I’m curious to see what Troy Nixey does next because I want to know how much involvement del Toro really had in directing the film. The two make a good team, but del Toro has done much better. The Blu-Ray disc ports over the film with a darkly clean transfer and an effective audio mix when the creatures start crawling around the house, but the special features are short and not that detailed for making-of material. I’m not sure how effective the film will be when watching the UltraViolet copy on your phone or tablet device. The bigger the screen and the darker the room the better.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark offers a healthy supply of scares, but they're unbalanced with the rest of the film.