One criticizes Guillermo del Toro at one's peril. He's become a savior to fans of the Cinema Fantastic, the horrific, and the arabesque in movies, wielding his creative sword to smite mainstream naysayers into acquiessence with tales of morose children imperiled by Baroque situations. This is another such tale, although it's based on the television movie that frightened del Toro and many other genre fans--myself included--when it first aired in 1973. The criticism I'll dare to level here is del Torro's glossier version tries very hard to impress, but never actually does because he builds it on familial relationships overused in horror movies: the displaced, unhappy kid with separated parents and an unwanted stepmom; and he replaces simple, old-fashioned mystery-building with letting the CGI boys run wild. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a good monster movie, it's just not a good scary one.
I'll lay some of the blame with director Troy Nixey. The opening shock-drop--what I call those brief, jarring scenes often used at the beginning of straight-to-DVD-movies--of Blackwood (Gary McDonald), the house's first tenant desperately trying to get his missing son back, robs the suspense we needed as Sally (Bailee Madison) pays a forced visit to her architect dad (Guy Pierce) and his live-in, interior designer girlfriend (Katie Holmes). They're renovating a brooding Gothic mansion surrounded by intimidating formal gardens and filled with dark hallways and subterranean pests. Shades of Arthur Machen's forestry horrors and startling Pickman's Model revelations are hinted, but del Toro gives them fan-boy nods instead of plumbing deeper while Nixey's CGI animators and production designers direct the action out from under him. It all looks fantastic, but doesn't play fantastic.
Transitioning the original danger of threatened adult (Kim Darby in the televised version) to threatened child--we're told the underground creatures love to eat children's teeth after terrorizing them--should have pumped up the quotient for eldritch terror dramatically, but it doesn't. We all ready know the threat looming after the opening few minutes and must wait for sullen Sally and everyone else to catch up; except for the laconic groundskeeper (every brooding mansion must have one) Mr. Harris (Jack Thompson). He knows about the nasty buggers waiting behind the ash pit grate in the hidden basement, but damned if he'll tell anyone before they slice and dice him to a bloody pulp. Which brings me to another pet peeve I have with laconic groundskeepers in horror movies: namely that they're always laconic when they should be screaming bloody hell warnings, and they always spill the few beans well after the time they really needed to spill them ahead of. You can call it script contrivance, or even crafty planning depending on how it's used, but its use is often counterproductive, like the shock-drop that reveals much of the mystery before any detection can begin. I will call them cheap shots. I expected more from del Toro.
I also expected less. Suspense gives way to too much CGI conflict between Sally, the adults, and the evil goblins living beneath the mansion: brief scenes of eyes looking through keyholes, being threatened by pointy objects poised to strike from the other side; longer scenes of straight-razor dalliance at ankle level; and an encounter with a toolbox worth of pointy objects aiming through the darkness, capped by close-ups of goblins wreaking havoc, illustrate the story like a fairy tale book's pictures without embellishing its emotional contextual ambience. Nixey knits scenes together with little suspense building: the house is creepy dark, got that; the basement's one of del Toro's nightmarish wetdreams, got that, too; but so what? More feeling and less seeing would have elevated Don't Be Afraid of the Dark to scare the bejesus stature.
It's a shame del Toro wasn't able to recapture the terror he felt when he first saw Kim Darby being victimized by the goblins. That sense of terror needed to be here. It isn't, although it looks like it is.
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