Comic book artist Troy Nixey’s debut feature Don’t be Afraid of the Dark boasts the writing credit of Guillermo del Toro, but the film is undermined by a nonstop barrage of flimsy characters and gigantic plot holes. While such drawbacks are not entirely unexpected in horror films, they are ill matched to the unfrightening little CGI monsters in the film, who appear to have been added in an effort to broaden the film’s audience.
It is a pity, because Don’t be Afraid of the Dark begins on a tense, brooding note about unspeakable horrors lurking beneath the earth’s surface, with a chillingly grotesque reference to human teeth and a murder. Nixey’s film is the exact opposite of the one he probably proceeded to make – it has characters about whom we never care, plot points that never excite, and zero moments of shock or unsettling horror to even cause minimal effect of the viewer’s pulse.
Based on a 1973 TV movie of the same name that inspired del Toro, Don’t be Afraid of the Dark stars Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes as a couple who invest their life savings into fixing a creaky old mansion that had been unoccupied ever since its owners vanished. The husband is so obsessed with the renovation that he forgets that his sad, neglected young daughter Sally (Bailee Madison) had been sent to him by his ex-wife. Sally begins seeing creatures in the new home, who not only don’t appear playful, but are also looking for some sort of human sacrifice. This is all very entertaining, no doubt, for those who are new to spooky stories but is very clichéd for those of us who have been watching horror films for years. If the idea was to attract the Pan’s Labyrinth enthusiasts then it proved to be fatally flawed, because Don’t be Afraid of the Dark is neither as well constructed and layered as that film, nor does it have any semblance of a scary or wondrous moment.
The production design is impeccable, and the sets do a great job of creating atmosphere, that is, until we see the creatures. Once the mystery is known, the film ceases to scare or fascinate. To make things worse, the whole thing ends on a frustratingly implausible note, as if the lives of everyone involved in the film depended on the presence of deux ex machina.