As I began to watch this film with no prior knowledge whatsoever, the opening scenes had a sort of mystical feel that was present in a film called Cronos, which was written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro back in 1993. While the plots between that and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark are completely different, something about the dark and shadowy style that was about to unfold evoked certain uneasiness present in this previous work of horror and fantasy. Sure enough, as the opening credits began to roll, I found that this film was indeed written and produced by Del Toro. What we have here is an interesting mix of mystery, horror, and fantasy directed by Troy Nixey which will make you uncomfortable from start to finish. While not exactly scream-inducing, the special effects and outstanding cinematography will help you to feel as if you too are trapped in the haunted house recently purchased by characters played by Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes, with their young daughter portrayed by Bailee Madison. It will creep you out, and some of the scenes of violence may even make you cringe, but that is precisely the point; to prove an unsettling story and keep you squirming in your chair.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark begins about a hundred years prior to present day, with a famous artist trying to get his son back from some kind of demonic captors who live in the basement of his mansion home. After a bone-chilling murder which will make our teeth hurt (you have to watch it), we begin to see where this story is going, as a mystery is about to unfold. What are these creatures in the basement, and what do they want? When we return to the present and a new family is about to move in, they notice the caretaker of the grounds, the grandson of the artist, appears to be hiding something about the house, and they soon find out that there is actually a hidden basement, boarded up after the horrors of the opening conflict. Because the daughter is living away from her mother with her father and his apparent fiance, she is eager to find an adventure, which would be an escape from her sadness, as she feels unloved by her parents because of the move. Very soon, voices start speaking to her from the basement, and then the heating vents in the house, and through her curiosity, she accidentally unleashes a horde of these little demonic creatures, who look like tiny, furry animals (with very sharp teeth, of course). At first, they appear to be nice and wanting to be friends, but not long after, come to terrorize the child.
The special effects budget must have been enormous, because normally, such creatures would look ridiculous. However, Nixey and Del Toro find a way to make it work, as they are kept in shadows more often than not, and perhaps more frighteningly, we can hear their scurrying along on the floor and in the vents, and speaking with an other-worldly tone of voice. Their whispers will send chills down your spine, as will the violence they inflict on those living in the house. We can feel every cut and slash, and we grow sick with each encounter. This is not a slasher film by any means, but there is enough grotesque violence for you to get your fill, though the blood is pretty subtle and is usually half-hidden by darkness.
But this is not just a simple case of a house being haunted, or, should I say, infested. There is a greater mystery present here, which is uncovered by Holmes as she seeks to find some truth in what she feels are only nightmares and visions created by her daughter. After investigating and finding a private collection of demonic-themed drawings by the artist hidden by the public, she comes to find that what her daughter is experiencing is no hallucination, and the attacks will soon become a lot more real for her.
This is not a perfect movie by any stretch, and there are some serious plot holes here that I cannot get into without possibly ruining some of the story. I found that for most of the film, Pearce and Holmes worked very well together, and the acting and pacing was quite good. The ending does get a bit over the top and the special effects which were so great throughout lose a little bit of their luster (instead of three or four demons in a shot, we see hundreds, and get close-up views of their ghastly faces) but to me, it does not ruin the overall product. Because of the sense of mystery, and again, some excellent cinematography by Oliver Stapleton, we get an eerie, chilling work of horror which I would definitely recommend to any fan of the genre. Final rating 7.5 out of 10.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a remake of a 1973 television film of the same name starring Jim Hutton and Kim Darby. The original script, by Nigel McKeand, served as a partial basis for this new screenplay, co-written by Del Toro and Matthew Robins.