A young girl sent to live with her father and his new girlfriend discovers creatures in her new home who want to claim her as one of their own.
When reviewing DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, I found myself in a state of internal conflict. Its been my hardest review to articulate by far, so bear with me and by the end it'll all make sense, I hope...
Anything with Guillermo Del Toro's name on it is usually a guaranteed work worth experiencing. Whether he's in the directors chair, (PAN'S LABYRINTH, THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE), or working in a producing capacity, (EL ORFANTO, JULIA'S EYES), his unique vision, cinematic aesthetic and storytelling prowess are always upfront. DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is no different, at least on the surface.
Taking on the role of both Writer and producer, this time Del Toro is dipping his toes into the shark infested water that is ' THE REMAKE'. Yep, DON'T BE AFRAID is a remake of a TV movie from the 80s that made quite an impression on many who saw it. I caught it for the first time last year and I really couldn't see what all the fuss was about. It had a cool concept that plays on a whole host of childhood fears, yet I found the execution to be severely lacking. In my mind, its a film that was ripe for a remake. After all, instead of remaking all the stone cold classics like HALLOWEEN, why not take a flawed work and push to make it better; make it what it could have been?
The plot for DON'T BE AFRAID fits snugly into Del Toro's cinematic vision of the world. Much like PANS, it plays out like an extremely dark fairy tale. One in which the solid 'reality' of the adults existence is offset by the fantastical view of our world as seen through the eyes of a child. Both films feature children in their central roles, and both deal with the vast rift between the perception of adult and child. The difference, and its a vital one, is that Del Toro directed PAN'S LABYRINTH, and with that film, he was far more successful in portraying the two worlds than he is here, as a producer.
In fairness though, PAN'S was reaching for the level of high art. It achieved it with aplomb. The fantasy elements served as a metaphor for the rise of fascism, and the films inherent intelligence, shocking violence and disturbing sexual undertones marked it as a fairy tale made specifically for adults. DON'T BE AFRAID, while carrying an R rating, is a film that I believe will be far more accessible to the young members of the audience. It's an enjoyable, suitable creepy ride for us old folks, but I believe for a child it will be one hell of an experience.
DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is a film getting wildly mixed reviews, and I think I understand why..
I want to review this film in complete fairness. I honestly believe it requires a specific outlook in order to fully understand/appreciate it. Some will say I'm being an apologist for bad writing, but the longer I think on it, I really don't think I am. The writing in this film will help it soar, or sink it completely, depending on the viewers standpoint. This situation could have been avoided, and I believe its totally down to false-target advertising, a ridiculous rating, and an expectancy from an audience its not really created for. Let me explain...
First of all, from the perspective of an adult, I left the movie with, at first, a sense of real disappointment. I went in expecting a full-on, violent hell-ride, (the totally inexplicable R-rating lent itself to that expectation, of course), but what I got was an almost bloodless, occasionally infuriating experience. A very enjoyable experience, for sure, but one I felt. (key word there; felt), was almost scuppered completely by its script. When I hear that Del Toro is writing a screenplay, I obviously expect the cream of the crop. The mans a genius, and among the most visionary artists we have living on our spinning world, and he's proven with PANS and DEVILS BACKBONE that he can inject what would be child-centric horror with an artistry and maturity that most can only dream of, and elevate it to the highest echelons of deeply adult Horror. Here, though, the screenplay makes many choices that my 'adult mind', just couldn't gel with. DON'T BE AFRAID is one of those films where the actions of certain characters are so dumb, so UNTHINKABLE, that the experience can lose its grip on you. This is fantasy, yes, and I can happily get on board with small creatures rising from the netherworld to claim innocents, (in fact, I think that's an awesome concept), but I'm also an adult, and what I have a harder time getting on board with are choices made by 'humans from our reality', that defy any and all common damn sense. This film has many such moments. Yet they can be overcome, and even viewed as a strength. Its all just a matter of perspective.
Before I go into that side of things in detail, let me inform you of what immediately works here. First of all, its a Del Toro movie. The pitch black whimsy, dreamlike imagery and vivid attention to story and pacing that were so brilliantly displayed in his previous works, are all here in full force. And the setting is just remarkable. Its an absolutely beautiful location for a film with such Gothic overtones. The mansion is a character in itself, alive with foreboding...its endless corridors wreathed in shadow and its surreal decor, it really feels like the 'forbidden mansion of lore' where kids can simply disappear forever. Its beautiful, and is shot with a precision eye. The film looks every bit as stunning as EL ORFANTO. I should note that first time director Troy Nixey does a brilliant job here. Not all credit should go to Del Toro.
Also, the cast are uniformly solid. Guy Peirce plays his role as the neglectful father rather fearlessly, (you WILL hate this guy, more on this later), and its good to see Kate looking and acting like a member of the human race again, after so many years trapped in the Horror movie that we all imagine is marriage to Tom Cruise, (I'm guessing she pulled her head together enough to reclaim her self-worth in between all the Scientology bullshit he force fed her). Shes as charming and as capable as she always was back in the day. More so, in fact, as her role is the most fleshed out, with the strongest arc. Its hard for me to get on board with anyone who's chums with Mr Cruise, but I really felt for her here. Shes great.
The real star of the show, though, is newcomer Bailee Madison, who's performance is every bit as effective and nuanced as Haley Joel Osmond's was in THE SIXTH SENSE. As the child terrorised by demonic forces, she runs the gauntlet of emotions from childlike glee, to insolent anger, to outright paralysing terror, and she's incredible in every moment. Her character, at first, appears very unlikable, but by the end of the film, you'll be terrified for her, (and wishing her dad a horrifying death, but more on that later). She carries the whole film on her shoulders, and makes the rest of the cast, however good, look like amateurs. Lets hope this cute, talented kid manages to avoid the Hollywood trappings that so expertly fuck up most child actors. If so, she can and will go a very long way.
The films pace is perfect, though some will find the first half uneventful and ponderous. Anyone who knows Del Toro's ouvre will be accustomed to this focused style of storytelling. Things do take time to get going, but with good reason. The build up of suspense is something all too damn rare in Horror cinema, these days. And its nice to be able to sink your teeth into a tale that cares about building atmosphere and tension. Troy Nixey appears to be a filmmaker in the most traditional sense, talking great care to craft a solid, complete story. The second half, on the other hand, is full of memorable moments and set pieces, as the monsters expose themselves to the little girl, and become far more threatening. There are some really creepy moments awaiting the open-minded viewer here, and I thought the finale was both sad, and exciting.
Now, a film like this will stand or fall on the strength of its creatures, I'm sure you'll agree. And that's yet another thing DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK does incredibly well. The nightmarish, demonic, whatever the-hell-they-ares, are kept mostly in shadow, and the CG matches Del Toro's usual top-tier standards. The design of these tiny beasts is brilliant too. They look every inch the nightmarish creation of a Brothers Grimm tale, or a childs night terror. Theres a palpable sense of evil in their movement, their sinister yet enticing voices, and their impish appearance, that make them among the most memorable onscreen horrors Ive seen in a long time. These guys are universal childhood fears writ large, representing more than simply little goblins. They are the creature under the bed, the beast in the basement, the very real fear every kid has of being dragged away from their family. I can only imagine the trauma such creatures would have inspired in the kid-version of myself, and that's where I come to the characters actions....
The one issue that I'm sure most people will have with the story being told here is that of the fathers behavior. He appears to either be the most idiotic ass hat on Earth, or a complete and utter asshole, and makes choices that do stretch the boundaries of believability, AS AN ADULT. Yes, you could argue that his utter idiocy is a simple case of poor writing, or even a lack of respect towards the audience and their intelligence on the writers part. You could argue that the story simply asks us to accept these moments of stupidity, and shut the hell up like the mindless drones we are. And if you look at the film in that sense, you'll be angered, feel cheated, and most likely hate the damn thing.
Now, from a child's perspective, these things are completely believable, and inherent in the traditional storytelling mould. Theres a horror lurking in your home, and your parent is so distant and self absorbed he cant see past his own world, and into yours. The creatures your conversing with are offering you more than your distant, egocentric parent ever has, and your tempted....
If you pay attention to the tale being told, its stated that the daughter is dosed up on medication before the tale begins, so it makes sense that her old man would think she was making all this up. His actions may be insufferable, but if you look at this as an (extremely) dark fairytale, then that becomes the whole point. Lost children having to face the evil in the world, without the help of a trusted adult, is what those tales are all about. Also, theres a clever twist on the 'wicked stepmother' of many fairy tales, as the fathers younger girlfriend becomes something of a companion for the child. Filling the role the absentee father cannot or will not. That in itself is a terrifying notion to a child....that the parent doesn't want to understand them, and dismisses their every thought as nonsensical. Add into that mix a healthy dose of creeping, lurking figures that stalk you in the night and want to drag you off and eat you....you have a near perfect childhood nightmare scenario.
Now, as an adult, the scenario wont hold a great deal of fear for you, but imagine seeing this film as a child. Remember THE GATE? Well, this plays on those same fears, yet is far more effective. If you can still touch base with your inner kid, this film will most likely delight you. And I really believe that it will grow and grow in stature until it becomes a classic of its kind. This is a film I would allow my daughter to watch around eight or nine, and while I know it would terrify her, its exactly the sort of film that leads to a love affair with Horror for a kid. It plays on all those long-repressed fears we have, and that kids are still in full sway to, and it forces the kid to face them. Fear of the dark, the unknown, the monster in the closet that stalks us at night, isolation, loveless parents...its all here.
After sleeping on it, my initial disappointment at the film has vanished, and Ive come to see it as a wonderful, though misunderstood work. I would have loved to see this as a child. It would have upset the hell out of me, but man, would I have ate it up. Is there such a thing as intelligent Horror aimed at children? I don't know if I've ever come across it, at least not so fully realised. Childlike Horrors aimed at adults, yes, but not vice-versa. DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is tense, creepy, visually stunning and focuses on story and atmosphere over effects. Go in expecting another PANS LABYRINTH, full of adult themes, political and spiritual insight, and its game over; but if you view this film through the prism of that little Horror lover you once were, you may just love it. I do, and I hope my daughter does too, once she forgives me for having her watch it...
8.5 Nether-worldy Beasties out of 10