Horror movies, especially mainstream ones, are in shambles. Thinking back on the last year or two of theatrically released horror movies, I can only recall a couple of standout films that managed to crawl under my skin. Most of the time, horror is either disgraced by a lackluster remake (A Nightmare on Elm Street) or a watered down PG-13 rating (The Haunting in Connecticut). Though still technically a remake (of a made for TV movie, so who cares), this week’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark puts forth some honest to goodness effort. Unfortunately, that effort is akin to a basketball team who plays their hardest, but still loses. It’s a commendable attempt, but when all is said and done, it’s still a failure.
Bailee Madison plays Sally, a young girl who is sent to live with her father, Alex, played by Guy Pearce, in Rhode Island. She’s none too happy about it and her resentment shows, especially when directed at Alex’s girlfriend, Kim, played by Katie Holmes. She is now stuck in a huge mansion with nothing to do, so, being the adventurous person she is, she snoops around and finds a hidden basement in the house. After hearing voices through a grate down there, she pries it open and unleashes a terror that threatens her safety and that of her family.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is so good in so many different ways, it’s a shame it ended up the way it did. Truth be told, the film has more positive traits than negative, but, as any movie critic will tell you, some aspects are weighted heavier than others. If a horror movie can set the proper mood and cast good actors who give good performances, you’re halfway to success, but no amount of mood can make up for a lack of scares. This is a prime example of that type of film. It’s set in a giant mansion in the middle of nowhere, with backwoods, gardens, gravestones and a lake in the front with fog ominously wafting over it. It does a brilliant job of mixing the innocent with the evil, taking things like teddy bears and rotating night lights and making them unsettling. Its use of lighting and shadows creates a welcome feeling of paranoia; something could be hidden just beneath the darkness.
All of these things contribute to an effective build that is guaranteed to set most viewers on the edge of their seats, hearts racing with anticipation. And then it comes; a scare that simply isn’t scary. The climax of these scenes is precisely where the film falters most. So while the build may work, the problem is those weak climaxes negate the build. Those on the edge of their seats will slide back and those sitting up at attention will slump. The creatures aren’t particularly menacing, especially once you’ve gotten an up close look at them, and you’ll quickly realize that the film has run out of tricks, or trick rather. Because the creatures don’t like light, you’ll get to watch the characters run around with flashlights and cameras to repel them while they attempt to smash any type of light source they can find. After this happens for the first time, you’ll get the gist of what this movie has to offer and the thrills will become lessened as each subsequent scene plays out.
Still, the performances are all very good, especially little Bailee Madison, who is exploring new ground here. She has been in everything from ridiculous comedies (Just Go with It) to religious dramas (Letters to God) and she adapts well to horror. Any performance issue can most likely be traced back to the screenplay, which forces its characters into unrealistic stupidity. As with most horror films, you’re supposed to simply go along with it, but it’s difficult to swallow some of their actions. Little Sally puts herself into so many precarious situations, it could only be seen as a justifiable outcome if she were to perish.
In the interest of full disclosure, I suppose it must be said that the audience at my screening for Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was awful, and when you watch a movie with a crowd as obnoxiously loud as them, you have to take their ruining of the experience into account. Horror movies rely heavily on sound (and silence) to work, so a rambunctious crowd can effectively suck the tension out of the theater. I like to think I can separate my experience with the movie from the crowd, but, admittedly, it’s a difficult thing to do. On a repeat viewing, perhaps I’d find Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark better, but I only have this one viewing to judge it on. And in that regard, it was a huge disappointment.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark receives 2/5