Guillermo del Toro prefers his fairy tales to contain a certain amount of artistic fantasy, wonder, and even violence. Children today are exposed to a kinder, gentler sort of fairy tale than they were a few centuries ago when they were much more graphic and held dire warnings for wayward children. In the past, del Toro has successfully revived those stronger veins of story. Don’t be Afraid of the Dark is based on what seems to be the tooth fairy tale but rather than the wonder and enchantment you may expect from a name like Guillermo del Toro shown twice during the opening credits, this film focuses much more on the suspense and horror elements.
There are creepy-crawly things which live deep below a Rhode Island mansion and they crave ‘child’s teeth’. There is a brief prologue showing their modus operandi to obtain these items and then there is a cut away to the present day. Alex (Guy Pearce) appears to be a mansion/old house restorer and his live-in girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes), also serves as his interior decorator. Alex’s daughter Sally (Bailee Madison) unluckily arrives during the restoration process to live with him for only hinted at reasons; her mother is not up to the task of raising a child who does not fit in very well with the other kids. This vague description is not intentional; the script’s explanations are truly this vague. There are no overt reasons for Sally to move in with her father and any past psychological or social problems are only barely broached. Naturally, Sally has an immediate dislike for dad’s girlfriend.
This stage setting is not very quick either. The writers choose to take their time with the character introductions and young Sally’s discovery that this house is not all it appears to be. Against the warnings of the cranky, old caretaker Mr. Harris (Jack Thompson), Sally stumbles upon the fact that the house has a basement which former tenants have creatively hidden for later occupants. Now, Sally begins to hear whispers and soft voices calling for her to come to the basement and play. This is the catalyst for a chain of events which at best are repetitive and monotonous but the descriptors of annoying and time-wasting are not out of the argument here.
The tedious repetition of scurrying feet, nighttime shenanigans, and the increased skepticism on the part of the adults do not aid the tension and suspense, they instead kill the mood the movie is trying to create. Over and over again poor Sally is traumatized by happenings emanating from the basement and nobody will help her. The old standby that only the child understands and adults are stupid and too old is worked to death by the script and shatters any wonder or curiosity of what the heck is actually going on down there. An explanation and history of it all is so briefly brought to light and talked over it is actually maddening when they cut away from it for another scene of Sally in trouble. The writers make a fatal choice to ignore what would be the most interesting bit of the underground creatures, their past, and choose instead to stack whisper upon whisper and scene upon scene of monotonous, dark, and cringe-inducing boredom.
Dark is definitely an important word here. It is dark outside even during the day. Every room in the house is extremely dim including Sally’s bedroom which is truly one of the darkest settings ever shot. The house restorers did not give too much thought to properly lighting any rooms whatsoever. The basement has an excuse as to why it is so dark but it is actually one of the lighter areas since they included a handy skylight to brighten up the place. Normally, dimly shot scenes belong in a film which warns you not to be afraid, but no worries, any thought you would have of being afraid is erased after the third of fourth iteration of the exact same scene set-up you have already witnessed before.
Katie Holmes does not show up in very many movies anymore which makes this film an odd choice for her to say yes to. Perhaps she wanted the prestige of being involved in a movie written by Guillermo del Toro. Most actors would also raise their hands to work with him considering he wrote Pan’s Labyrinth, the Hellboy screenplays, and The Devil’s Backbone. Unfortunately, Katie got her chance in his worst script yet. Guy Pearce’s bumbling character gets a few scenes less than Katie does which maintains his current streak of supporting roles. Guy used to be a leading man but recently he has popped up only briefly in The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Animal Kingdom, and The Road. He was good in all of those roles, but they had extremely limited screen time. Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, an extremely uninspired film title by the way, will not help him if he wants to be a headliner again in the future.