It may be a remake of a 1973 film, but it’s a good title, isn’t it? Of course we’re afraid of the dark; most scary movies would be nothing without shadows for bad guys to jump out of. And these bad guys are smaller than the ones you’re probably used to being scared of: tiny, withered monsters, freed from the grate of a basement. (These movies always make me glad that I’ve never been in a house with a basement, surely why Australia constantly tops “Liveable Country” Lists.) To be honest, this is pitched more at a younger market so most adults won’t be scared to go to the car in the dark after seeing the movie, but there’s a few scenes of genuine terror that might scare your kidlet out of losing the nightlight for, oh, fifteen years or so.
The central character of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’s all-round excellent cast is headed up by Bailee Madison as Sally, a young girl shipped from her mother’s possibly-over-medicating arms to her architect father Alex (Guy Pearce, not quirky for once), who is working on restoring an enormous mansion in Rhode Island. She’s instantly miserable, especially when she realises that her mother got rid of her indefinitely rather than briefly and that Alex’s girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes, mostly dressed in sacks) is going to be sticking around. Just when living in a gigantic, beautiful mansion with two people who love you and a maid who makes apple pie seems like it couldn’t get any worse, the family uncover a basement hidden under the house, and unleash a tribe of stabby little gremlin-type monsters who love to feast on people. Well, specifically, people-bones. But will anyone believe a kid with a history of hardcore sulking? I mean, what would you believe if your clothes were found cut up: that it was your angry stepdaughter, or monsters that eat teeth?
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is getting some pretty bad press but it’s not really a terrible movie. Like virtually all recent horror flicks, it has a lot of flaws, but you could do worse than seeing this at the movies one night when you’re bored. The set design is amazing, the house’s landscape beautiful (with touches of Pan’s Labyrinth, thanks to the obvious touches from producer Guillermo del Toro) but unfortunately under-utilised. The actors, mostly Australian, are top-notch (and include, peripherally, Garry McDonald, apparently finally broken by his Mother & Son matriarch; Nicholas Bell as a greying therapist; Jack Thompson as the cranky but wise gardener), including Madison, who is an absolute treasure, delivering glares like a seasoned child-of-a-divorce but who ultimately just wants to be loved. (Aw.) A grotesque opening prologue delivers some serious cover-your-eyes squick straight away, and, as with all these types of films, it is endlessly frustrating yet understandable when people—especially adults—won’t believe you when you tell them there’s monsters out to get you. And these monsters are pretty damn icky, perfectly rendered special effects-wise with not a moment when they don’t seem physically there. They are revealed early and come out in dim enough light to be seen pretty clearly; they hold up in the light but as with many monster-flicks lose something in the reveal. The ending, as well, is a shock when you are hoping for the happy-la-la ending of many teen-aimed horror films. One thing absolutely worth mentioning is that it passes the Bechdel Test repeatedly, with women talking a lot about a variety of things, and that I was unexpectedly thrilled to see that when the family got around in a car, Kim did all the driving and Alex sat in the passenger seat.
On the downside, the tension isn’t directed all that well; you’ll be nervous, but not scared. The creatures can take on a grown, ragey man but when confronted with a sobbing nine-year-old swipe at her without making contact just long enough for her to be saved. When people fall, it’s always right on their head so they get knocked out. (Why is this? Do they not know that if they stay unconscious more than a few seconds it usually means some serious brain damage? Pretty much everyone gets tripped/falls and bonks their head instead of breaking their outstretched arm like a normal person.) Not enough is made of Sally’s mental state; she turns up to the house on Adderall and a comment is made on her past, but instead of making this an interesting discussion about child mental illness they brush it away, assume the medication isn’t necessary and even after a violent incident, suspicion doesn’t fall on her (or anyone, even when the particular incident is clearly not self-inflicted. It’s actually really frustrating.) Kim comes across as pretty selfish at the start, which makes her hard to relate to; also, she and Alex have inappropriate conversations that Sally overhears at more than one different moment, the repetition of which which cheapens Sally’s initial hurt through the amazing power of cliché. Important moments become plot holes—why does Sally not point out the twitching critter arm to a crowd after she victoriously squashes one? Why do critters that like to eat children’s teeth NOT ONCE get referred to as Tooth Fairies? And to top it off, the survivors’ underwhelming reaction to the horrific ending left me full of a rage I dare not elaborate upon, because, well, spoilers.
It’s not excellent but not appalling, well produced and quite a pretty film. I wouldn’t take anyone younger than, say, twelve to see it, but it might really hit the mark for a youthful audience. Don’t avoid it, and don’t be afraid of it. I give it eleven out of twenty baby teeth.