MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Horror/ Stars: Bailee Madison, Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Jack Thompson, Alan Dale, Trudy Hellier, Julia Blake, Garry McDonald, Nicholas Bell, James Mackay, Emelia Burns; Voices of: Grant Piro, Dylan Young, Guillermo del Toro, Todd Macdonald, Angus Smallwood/Runtime: 100 minutes
I think it is safe to start this review off by saying that Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a slice of cinematic pie that managed to legitimately earn my respect for having the guts to be a movie made in the 2010s that actually had the look and vibe of a distinct subgenre of horror known as “Old School Horror”. This, in case you didn’t know, is a subgenre of film that chooses to put more of a significant emphasis on mood, atmosphere, and that which you don’t see over building up characters and scaring an audience with cheap, watered-down jump scares instead of terrors that cling to your very soul. As an entry in this distinct subgenre, I can honestly say that this slice of cinematic pie is one that is not only quite effective albeit flawed in some respects. Rather it is also a brilliantly designed, fairly engaging, and at moments spine-chilling little movie that may not have any big surprises coming your way, but will most assuredly leave you in chills over the dark, the unknown, that creepy basement, a seemingly-innocent looking grate, things that act up when the sky is dark and the moon is out, and those voices you hear which may be your imagination or maybe just maybe are creatures waiting for just the right moment to pounce on some poor unaware victim and….well I’m sure you can fill in the blanks from there. Suffice it to say then that iconic film auteur Guillermo del Toro’s, who sadly only wrote this movie’s story, tale that is presented to us here is a pitch black fairy tale of some sort or fashion and one of the more distinct kinds of tales that is better engineered towards dealing with genuine terror. That terror of course being the type that burrows its way into your heart and doesn’t let go, the type that toys with your most elementary fears, and the type that gives us a narrative that becomes more terrifying the more it builds and the further away from their comfort zones the cast of characters are taken.
The plot is as follows: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark tells the story of a young girl by the name of Sally as she is in the process of arriving in the lovely state of Rhode Island where we quickly learn that she has come there in order to live with her dear ol’ dad Alex and his new girlfriend Kim. Suffice it to say that our young heroine is not exactly the happiest camper in the world about this whole ordeal since not only does she miss her mom who, unbeknownst to her, forced this upon her dad, but she also is under the sway of medication that a girl her age most likely doesn’t need at that stage in her life. We soon, along with Sally, learn that Alex and Kim are waist-deep in the midst of a huge restoring project consisting of a manor known as the Blackwood estate that dear ol’ dad hopes will get him on the cover of a renowned publication and thus send his career into the stratosphere. Things soon take for a turn for the intriguing when our inquisitive young heroine stumbles upon a undiscovered basement and she, her dad, and Kim all decide to check it out despite the steep reservations of one of the people helping with the remodeling who may know more than he’s telling. Soon we discover that Sally has become obsessed with this room due in no small part to mysterious voices that cry out to her from within its walls. Of course, it should come as no surprise to learn that the adults don’t exactly believe Sally when she tells them what she is hearing, but it won’t be long before everyone in the house will know the properties of terror like no other and discover that within the corners and forgotten rooms of this house there lies a secret that has the potential to place all of them, most of all little Sally, in the worst kind of peril imaginable….
Now I feel it should be noted that it would not be in error to see the 2010 take of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark as a slice of horror cinema that is for a “tween” audience. An opinion I am inclined to share since there really isn’t a whole lot therein for this film to acquire the R-rating that it did even though it is still a wee bit more visceral and straightforward than a lot of neutered PG-13 horror films that exist simply to make a studio money rather than tell a genuine and integrity-laced narrative. To that end, it should be noted that to quite a few people this film will not be seen as scary. That is because this film doesn’t rely on musical hints, limbs being hacked off, and cheap jump scares to put fear into you. Rather, this is a movie that uses a more low-key assortment of scares that are able to build up to the point that eventually they wear you down and you want to just hide under a blanket instead of chuck your copy of the movie into a fireplace with revulsion. Indeed this is a movie that has a distinct pride in how it operates to say nothing of the fact that this is also the kind of film that will make you look at the basement in your house as a place where real peril and therefore terror beyond your wildest imagination exists and not just because this movie and others like it said so. Indeed it is that aspect which is the biggest success that this movie has going for it. I mean no the tale being told in this is not novel in any sense of the word and the characters are most definitely not the most iconic. Yet the film is still able to work some serious horror magic with the world it takes place, the atmosphere of said world, and the tempo at which it operates. An unholy trinity that together manages to work as a terrific support for the weaker ingredients whilst also aiding in constructing the more superficial aspects into something a lot more fulfilling than most “modern-day horror cinema” could ever hope to achieve.
Of course it should be said that, without a doubt in my mind, the production design on this slice of cinematic pie is not just a wonderful plus; rather it is also arguably essentially in making sure this film is scary in the classic sense of the word when it comes to cinema. By that I mean this is a slice of cinematic pie where you will feel like the house is its own separate character in the proceedings to the point that it feels like it has a life of its own despite just being a hideaway for the tiny monsters at the heart of the film. Nor only that, but the house also manages to operate as an iconic example of a time honored blend in classic horror cinema where the locale involved is in equal measure gorgeous to look at and yet horrifying within, warm but also chilling, and ominous despite appearing safe and tranquil. In addition, the work done with lighting, design, and just attention to the little details in general really help certain aspects of the house mean something completely different than what was intended; in this instance incidentally upcoming horror and gloom. It should also be noted that the movie doesn’t exactly succeed as well as it should when it comes to its musical accompaniment since it is one that is effective yes, but also one that feels like it came out of any horror film where a child is in peril. Further complicating matters is the fact that while the cast in this is fairly decent, they are also let down by the fact that the characters themselves are surprisingly one-dimensional and make decisions that you will be able to see coming from a mile away. Thankfully, that is ok since this is a movie that is not primarily about its characters. Rather they are just chess pieces on a chess board of mood and their function is to move around the house at just the right pace to up the stakes whilst also conjuring up a more steady feeling of terror as the movie goes on. Finally it would also appear that the design of the critters in this film, much like the thespians themselves, are something that is prioritized after making sure the mood is on-point. I mean don’t get me wrong the critters do look fairly well done in what looks like a blend between CGI and stop-mo work that whilst not looking as real as possible doesn’t at the same time look fully fake either thus aiding in enhancing the nightmare-esque vibe that the film is operating with fairly well.
All in all I am pleased to be able to tell each and every one of you that the 2010 take of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark manages to actually be a fairly decent little slice of cinematic pie that operates at its finest when it chooses to concentrate on design and the overall ambience/vibe rather than on its cast of characters and the creatures that they find themselves pitted against which, thankfully for each and every one of you, is the vast amount of this slice of cinematic pie’s runtime. Suffice it to say then that scribe/ iconic film auteur Guillermo del Toro’s movie is one that manages to be quite praiseworthy in how restrained it opts to be, the content of the movie itself, and the ability that the film manages to possess of choosing to let the unease and terror hang around and build up rather than drive the audience stark raving mad with plenty of cheap and ineffective jump scares that they would be able to see coming from a mile away. Indeed if you are one of those who happens to enjoy those and/or gallons upon gallons of blood and guts being spilt you will be disappointed by this for there is none of that to be found. However if you are one of those who enjoys classic horror which is made up by tension and suspense more than anything then you should definitely give this one a try as soon as possible. On a scale of 1-5 I give Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark “2010” a solid 3 out of 5.