A chilling mix of twisted fairy tale and gothic horror, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark may have been directed by Troy Nixey but has co-writer and producer Guillermo Del Toro’s fingerprints all over it. Neglected by her mother and sent to live with her father Alex (Guy Pierce) and his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes), introverted Sally (Bailee Madison) finds herself marooned within the Gothic walls of her father’s latest architectural project, Blackwood Manor. Largely ignored by her dad and cynical of Kim’s tentative attempts at bonding, Sally begins to investigate the dark corners of the estate. Spurred on by the rasping voices of unseen whisperers who promise friendship in return for freedom, she unwittingly unleashes an army of hellish creatures who plague her in the dark.
Based on the 1973 telefilm that del Toro believes to be the scariest TV production ever made,Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is tortuously tense from the outset. The unexpected, jaw-clenching brutality of the prologue becomes a sinister benchmark for the rest of the film; from then on, every wicked whisper, unsettling encounter or chilling discovery gnaws at the nerves, keeping the audience on tenterhooks as they anxiously anticipate more visceral violence.
Like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Orphanage, it is the external realisation of internal fears that is the film’s greatest success. Although toothy CGI gremlins that can be thwarted by a heavy encyclopaedia might not sound scary, viewed from Sally’s isolated perspective they are truly terrifying. This is largely due to Bailee Madison’s empathetic central performance. Striking the difficult balance between angry, hurt pre-teen and lonely, scared child, she embodies a universal vulnerability that will resonate with many, making her fear infectious.
The adult cast do well to support but not overcrowd her. Despite his unsympathetic role, Guy Pierce is convincing as Sally’s well-meaning but inattentive father, Alex. Meanwhile, Katie Holmes satisfies as concerned step-mum, Kim, offering Sally the comfort and protection she fails to receive from her biological parents.
Although some of the peripheral characters are little more than generic staples, – the conveniently knowledgeable librarian on hand to provide a macabre history lesson and the local contractor who knows more about the strange goings-on than he is letting on – the acting is strong enough to justify their presence in the narrative and add substance and credence to their roles.
Lacking the subtly and poignancy of The Orphanage, Nixey’s film is nonetheless a beautifully designed and well constructed scary horror. Although the back story could have been integrated into the narrative with more finesse, this is a minor flaw that does not interfere with the breathless suspense permeating each scene. Whilst horror fans looking for a pre-Halloween splatter fest might find it tame, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is not for the faint hearted. Tense, thrilling and absorbing throughout, think twice before turning out the light come bedtime…