Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark is very good with details. Its setting--an old, partially renovated mansion--is perfectly constructed for a horror film. Its cast is very small and tight knit, lacking the usual hot, frivolous and unimportant supporting players. Its back story is wonderful, effectively balancing old money, eccentric creativity and the creepiness of life before electricity. And its visual style, so sleek and modern without sacrificing eeriness, is a ringing endorsement for the film’s director Troy Nixey, who towers over most of his counterparts in aesthetic skill. But despite all the wonderful extras, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark completely loses sight of the fact that its central plot doesn’t work at all.
Watching Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark is like seeing a hot shot rookie in his first big league plate appearance line out really hard to third base. You can tell someday director Nixey might eventually make something great, but none of that skill can change the fact that his first full length movie is beset by boring leads, a running time twenty minutes too long and perhaps worst of all, villains that just aren’t that scary. Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark worked almost forty years ago with a few alterations as an ABC made-for-TV movie, but this rehash never should have been made.
Sally Hirst (Bailee Madison) has been discarded. Of course, her mother probably wouldn’t tell it that way. She’d say she was concerned about her daughter’s behavior and felt living with her father (Guy Pearce) would do the little girl some good. Those purported motivations wouldn’t change the isolation Sally feels as she first meets her father’s new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes). She’s an interior designer working with Sally’s dad on a full scale restoration of Blackwood Manor. The elegant retreat was once owned by famed nature artist Emerson Blackwood, but he disappeared into the basement generations ago just a few days after his son went missing, leaving the property in disrepair.
Colossal and castle-like, the home includes multiple floors, numerous bedrooms, a Beauty And The Beast-like library and a basement that’s been sealed off and hidden for decades. Sally discovers it a few days after settling in, but the lead handyman Mr. Harris (Jack Thompson) cryptically warns the family against going inside. He’s quickly outvoted, and the bottom floor is broken into. It contains many of Emerson Blackwood’s last paintings, a mysterious fireplace bolted shut and strange voices only Sally seems to hear. They beg her to open up the enclosure, and feeling friendless and alone, she willingly complies, unleashing a swarm of goblin-like menaces as child-thirsty as they are afraid of the light.
What follows is the standard horror fare you might expect--close calls are had, flashlights jam, a child isn’t believed and a grandiose finale is set in motion that involves a war against undead forces. It’s occasionally unsettling, but mostly, it’s just unaffecting. Viewers are never really given a reason to root for Sally and Kim beyond an inherent urge to see human overcome beast. The father Alex is almost a complete throwaway, simply occupying the role of work-obsessed, uninvested skeptic, and while some effort is made to build a complex relationship between Sally and Kim, there's not enough screen time to push it beyond mere plot point. Maybe if the monsters were something special the film could dig itself out of the hole, but they kind of look like Golem was hit with the Honey I Shrunk The Kids ray and then cloned dozens of times. They're a whole lot less impressive than Blackwood Manor.
Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark does a wonderful job of using its best feature, the estate, as another character. Camera shots criss-cross through vents to change floors. The beasts use pipes and the house's ventilation system to move around. Sliding bookcases are used as weapons, intricate gardens and tall trees are used as both mental and physical escapes. The sheer grandiosity of it all is mesmerizing to watch, but ultimately, a breathtaking mansion still isn’t a worthwhile home without interesting characters to live in it.
For horror aficionados, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark is probably worth seeing because of all it does right, but for everyone else, there’s just too much wrong to spend ten dollars.
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