Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark will not leave you afraid of the dark, so it is unnecessary to heed its warning. When a film is a remake of a made for TV movie, there’s no reason to expect it will be much better than its small screen original. However when Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy movies) puts his name on a project, expectations are understandably higher.
Sally (Bailee Madison), an otherwise normal eleven-year-old, is sent from California by her mother to live with her father (Guy Pierce). Her father, Alex, is an architect who has purchased an abandoned mansion somewhere in Rhode Island and is in the process of restoring it for resale. Both parents decided that change would do Sally some good. Moving to the middle of nowhere and into a house under construction with plenty of dangers makes one wonder what kind of hellhole Sally was living in while in California. Parenting is obviously not a theme in this movie.
Sally arrives at her new home to find that her father has a new girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes); she is also his interior designer. Sally begins her exploration of the house and where a professional architect and a team of construction workers failed, Sally is the one to find the mysteriously concealed basement. Our attention is brought to the bolted-shut grate over what appears to be an old furnace as Sally begins to hear whispers, all while the adults wonder why they missed such a large part of the house.
The mystery of the small creatures in the furnace is broken early on in the film as we are shown exactly what these goblin-like rats look like. They do attest to the skillful use of CG, but showing too much too soon certainly detracts from the suspense of the film. The creatures then attempt to befriend the lonely Sally. At no point do these furnace rats appear benevolent, so one is easily confused as Sally tries to forge a relationship with them. She is convinced of their good intentions up until they attack the groundskeeper and put him in the hospital as a sliced up and bloody mess.
Alex remains ignorant to events unfolding in his investment property. The bank is pressuring him, funds are running low and he has a big dinner coming up with the editor of Architectural Digest. Alex is certain that Sally just has an over active imagination and resorts to medicating her. Did I mention that parenting was not a theme? The inexperienced mother, Kim, believes her would-be daughter and investigates the houses previous owner who disappeared. Pssst…He was taken by the creatures in the furnace. No spoiler alert needed there, since his disappearance happened in the opening scene.
Kim discovers that these small creatures have a long history and overlooks their incongruous past to the movie’s plot line. A trip to the library reveals that they are a centuries-old species that need a human life to replenish their numbers and that a tenth century Pope, Sylvester II, (yes, there actually was a Pope with that name) compromised with these goblins; humans would leave their children’s teeth for them to eat if they would spare human lives, in exchange for the teeth the goblins would leave behind silver. This research forces so many questions to the surface. What happened to this pact? Don’t we still leave teeth behind for money? Why would the creatures agree to this, when they can just take a human at will? If they need a life to replenish their ranks, why are there so many of them? Are they a global phenomenon (I doubt Pope Sylvester II travelled to Rhode Island)?
Despite the holes in the plot, they movie does have its redeeming qualities. The movie is filmed in the perfect scary house. The detail that went into the setting sets the scene perfectly. The audience is drawn into the cold emptiness of the house and we cannot help but feel the chill that we would feel if actually there. The mise en scene sets such a high standard that the actors were forced to raise their own standard, and acted their roles adeptly.
Sally, played by an actual eleven-year old Bailee, skillfully brings the audience along with her as she explores the house and grounds with her child’s curiosity. With the combination of her genuine childhood fears and the menacing house that surrounds her, the audience watches the movie with their own sense of dread. Katie Holmes, who has not been seen much lately, plays the reluctant mother very well opposite the stellar Guy Pierce.
For a scary movie, there is a lack of jump-out-of-your-seat moments, but the ones that are there make you jump higher than you normally would and the opening scene hints at a pace that the rest of the movie does not live up to. The teaser leaves the audience squirming and glad they bought a ticket, but it is a tease that never fully delivers.
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A scary movie that goes beyond all the others.
The best scary scene is the opening one.