It doesn’t take much of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark to realise we’re in for more than 90 minutes of the worst kind of cinematic re-imaginings. The first feature from director Troy Nixey, working under the supervision of writer/producer Guillermo Del Toro, genre clichés are piled one on top of the other in quick succession, sitting alongside weak approximations of Del Toro’s own stylistic flourishes, most notably in its child’s-eye perspective and fantastical discoveries, the early outdoor explorations of the grounds of young Sally’s new home like discarded second unit test shots from Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).
Suffering from serious abandonment issues after being sent to live with her father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes), Sally (Bailee Madison) soon begins hearing voices calling her name from the cellar of the enormous Victorian home architect Alex is fixing up. It’s not long before the little creatures living in the crawl spaces of the house are revealed, complete with naff origin story and obvious pre-credits introduction. Of course, no one believes her, despite the mounting evidence; she even takes photos of the creatures, that no one wants to look at, even when the groundskeeper, burdened with the knowledge of the house’s secrets and pages of exposition, ends up in hospital after being attacked. It doesn’t help that Sally is heavily medicated, or that rather than telling a curious Kim the truth about the house, the groundskeeper sends her to the library so that someone else can, or that evidence of the creatures existence keeps conveniently disappearing, or even why no one else can hear the incessant whispering of the little critters…
The script itself come across as a particularly weak first draft, narrative contrivances and coincidences jostling for position amongst instances of lazy character exposition (“If we get the cover of Architect Digest, we won’t have to take out another bank loan!”) and dodgy metaphor; Holmes delivering a speech to Sally about how Koi Carp are special and vulnerable proving especially excruciating. It’s a laziness that comes across in the performances too, Pearce appearing barely interested and Katie Holmes reaching for the comfort of a prop to handle to distract from the fact that she can barely deliver a line of dialogue convincingly. Madison fares somewhat better, but even her aspect of the story progresses beat by predictable beat, what with her creepy teddy bear and irritating excursions down into the cellar.
It doesn’t help either that the child-eating creatures themselves are far from terrifying. Those in the original 1973 TV film were certainly more quirky and bizarre in design, reduced here to little Gollums, only effective in numbers. Nixey botches almost every other element too, his one effective jump scare little more than a cheap blast of volume on the soundtrack, the score itself insipidly bombastic, barely effective in generating any form of tension.
With its ugly studio-set production design and flat visual palette, there really is very little with which to recommend this genre regurgitation, and what Del Toro was thinking when he signed off both the script and the final cut is really anyone’s guess. The original remains a curiosity and certainly worth a look, but on Guillermo Del Toro’s varied CV as writer, director and producer, this rubbish sticks out like a very sore thumb.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark – 2011 – USA – 99 mins – Dir : Troy Nixey
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark goes on general release on 7th October.