Review: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

We talked about Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark in my home. My mother was freaked out when she saw it. I thought it was creepy. My husband thought so, too. Judging by Del Toro’s script (co-written with Matthew Robbins), he must have also seen it at night when it ran on Channel Five (or was it Thirteen?) in Mexico. There may be a whole generation of scarred Mexicans trembling in front of the TV set due to the programming choices of someone at the TV station twenty-something years ago.

The original was spooky, a bit rough, and a bit flawed. The remake is slicker. It’s lost some of its roughness, though also some of its fairy dust, of that late-night magic that made the grainy flick received by a rabbit attenna so compelling.

It’s still a bit flawed, perhaps more than its predecessor, which was, after all, a made-for-TV flick with a little budget and a tad more ambition than you might expect.

Is the new movie worth watching? If you like Gothic films, it is. The multiplex gets more torture porn than ghost stories these days, and it’s not every day you can walk into a movie with a grand, ornate mansion and things that scurry in the dark.

In the original, we had a woman moving into a house, opening a door which should not be opened and finding that something had been waiting, deep within the bowels of the house, to be released. In this version, it is a child who opens the door and out come some nasty creatures which like the dark and detest the light.

The problem is the creatures. The best moments of the film are when we don’t see them. Monsters, once seen, can never compare to what we imagine. Val Lewton knew this. The makers of Paranormal Activity took Lewton’s lesson and succesfully ran with it, precisely by not showing us stuff. The best shot of the monsters in this version is when we see them in drawings. Creepy as hell. The CGI? Not so creepy.

Thus, easily the best sequence of the whole movie happens during the prologue, when voices, noises and a heaping dose of violence serve exactly the kind of horror the movie needs. But then, eventually, the director feels compelled to show more and more of the things. Less is more. Better if they had stayed as drawings, voices and shadows.

The characters are also missing bits and pieces. Nobody believes little Sally when she says there are evil things in the house. The only one who seems to show some understanding, who eventually takes her seriously, is her dad’s girlfriend, played by Katie Holmes. But why? We get one line, in which Katie talks about her difficult childhood, but that is all. She bonds with Sally, even though most grownups who thought their boyfriend’s child had slashed their clothes might be unwilling to even give the child the time of day. Yes, I know Katie must bond with the child or the story cannot churn along, but there is no organic growth.

Organic growth is also missing in some other areas. There is a lack of logic (often found in horror films) at certain points, though I won’t go deeply into this, since it might reveal too much of the plot. Let’s just say that horror movies are often filled with characters who seem to never have watched horror films. For a movie that is called “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”, there’s too much light. There was more than one scene where I wanted to tell the character to open the shutters or go by the fireplace.

Troy Nixey, making his big directorial debut, tries to copy Del Toro’s style and kind of gets there, but kind of doesn’t. It’s a half-way journey.

In the end, this is an okay film that could have been great. It’s not. It’s got a nice set design and some neat ideas, but they never add to a truly chillling experience. Of course, if you are a horror fan, you can do worse than this. Much worse.

At any rate, if I ever talk to Del Toro, I’ll ask him about the influence of Mexican director Carlos Enrique Taboada’s work on his own output and whether he also watched the original Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark on the telly. Complete with rabbit ears.

About Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia lives in beautiful, rainy British Columbia with her family and two cats. She writes fantasy, magic realism and science fiction. You can read her stories in Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing, The Book of Cthulhu, Evolve 2 and Tesseracts 13. She is the co-editor of Candle in the Attic Window, Future Lovecraft and Historical Lovecraft.

Silvia Moreno-GarciaReview: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)