Don't Be Afraid of the Dark,
directed by Troy Nixey
(Miramax, 2011)

This remake of the classic TV thriller of the same title has two pillars of strength to help camouflage the space left by several gaping holes: the visually stunning cinematography, highly reminiscent of producer Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, and the spot-on performance of Bailee Madison, the young actress who plays Sally, the only member of her family who can see the menace hiding in plain sight.

The cracks these treasures cover -- well, but not perfectly -- are the tiredness of the haunted house cliche and the wooden performance of the usually engaging Guy Pearce, who is so restricted in a one-dimensional role that it's hard to imagine even this talented actor being able to resuscitate what appears to be a deliberately dead-end role.

Yet first-time director Troy Nixey manages to wring enough suspense from what could have been a hoakey premise into one that manages to get enough right to make the film engaging. It's creepy while somehow being kind of sweet, which is fitting when you're dealing with a pack of tiny terrors like the child-stealing monsters that live in the basement of the ginormous Gothic mansion Sally's architect father Alex (Pearce) has purchased for renovation, in hopes of launching his career into a larger -- and more lucrative -- orbit. Of course, that entails moving into the nightmare while trying to work at the same time. His distraction provides a good set-up for his second wife, Kim (Katie Holmes), to try and bond with, and ultimately help, the lonely Sally in her battle against the beasties who want to steal her away.

As evil-looking as they are clever, the child-stealers are so efficient at causing mayhem that I swear they would not only give Gremlins a run for their money, they'd eat them for a snack. They are quite a welcome break from a narrative that insists on proceeding down the well-worn genre paths of lost girl seeking imaginary companions who are ultimately not beneficent, and parental figures that dismiss children's claims at every turn simply because parental neglect is the oldest trick in the book for creating child endangerment.

Another ray of sunshine is Holmes' Kim, who actually tries to help Sally, even at terrible cost. Both Holmes' and Bailey's performances, and the incredibly sinister atmosphere of the Gothic mansion, keep Don't Be Afraid of the Dark from being too stilted, though its shopworn twists and turns do somewhat drag it down, especially in the final act. Still, Nixey and del Toro do a fairly decent job of crafting a film that gets under the skin and more or less gets the job done.

review by
Mary Harvey

24 November 2012

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