Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)
4/10 Dust Bunnies from Hell
Goes from flat-out terrifying to flat-out awful and just gets worse from there.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is about a little girl who goes to live with her dad and his new girlfriend in a big old mansion. Since she hates her dad, hates his new girlfriend, and doesn’t have any friends to play with, she gets super curious when she goes to the basement and starts hearing little voices coming from a sealed-off furnace. Not long after, she goes ahead and unseals that creepy furnace with an ear-to-ear grin that can only mean “PLAYTIME HAS BEGUN!” But then her new friends visit her that night, she realizes their idea of playing means snuffing her out and eating her teeth, and it occurs to the little girl that she just fucked up big time. From that point forward, the little girl has to survive and protect her family before they’re all totally toothless and super dead in a creepy ass house that they never should have bought in the first place.
If you’ve seen this movie advertised in some way, shape, or form, then you’ve already had Guillermo del Toro’s name seared so hard into your brain that you’re muttering it in your sleep. Call me crazy, but it’s not often you see a cast of relative A-listers get completely overshadowed by a movie’s co-writer/producer. I mean, he did produce The Orphanage, and that was one of the scariest movie’s I’ve ever seen, so I guess the studio was banking on the off-chance that everyone’s on that highly unlikely bandwagon to prevent this from being yet another haunted house movie. But whatever the reasoning was, that’s one hell of an unorthodox approach and I should have known that some shit was up.
Because, at the end of the day, this is just another haunted house movie that’s just as problematic and unoriginal as the last one you’ve already forgotten about. But in its defense, it wasn’t like that from start to finish.
During the first half-hour or so when we don’t know what the creatures look like and we just have our imaginations to run wild with, I could barely look at the screen. There’s lots of slow tension, lots of unseen terror, and to say I looked like a total bitch in my seat is an insult to female dogs. It wasn’t breaking the mold, it was just doing scary well and that worked like gangbusters as my index fingers jammed into ear drums.
But then that first act wraps up and we get our first full-blown view of the little monsters as they try to take down a grown-ass man. Lo and behold, these monsters are in fact bite-sized Gremlins that bear the scare factor of mutant hamsters with scoliosis. This marks the moment when I instantly grow a pair, straighten up in my seat like a big boy, and realize that I have just witnessed a movie jump the shark. And not only does this revelation occur way too early on, but everything after that point just isn’t scary in the slightest.
Considering how strong it starts out despite its same-shit-different-day premise, it really is a damn shame that the remainder of the movie never recovers. If they had brought out a queen little monster that was eight-feet-tall to mix things up, that would have been one thing, but instead the film makers leave us with more and more little monsters in the vain hope that sooner or later they’ll stop being lame as hell.
And then you’ve got the cast that barely even got a mention after Del Toro. After sitting through four seasons of Dawson’s Creek recently (that’s just how us good boyfriends roll), I’m not exactly heading up the Katie Holmes fan club, but by the same token, something’s gone terribly wrong when Katie Holmes is a cast’s strongest asset. Guy Pearce phones it in as the dad, Bailee Madison is content doing her best Samara the whole time, and Holmes is fine as the new girlfriend.
Although the performances aren’t even the worst part. That honor goes to the characters they’re playing. It’s the “creepy kid spends the whole damn movie trying to convince her stupid parents that the house is haunted but they don’t- believe her so they all end up dying at the end” bullshit plot that we’ve all seen before and frustrates us to tears with each new time it gets put into action. Aside from it being ridiculous, aside from it displaying behavior that reminds us all why Social Services exists, it’s just beyond me why screenwriters are still using it, especially Guillermo Del Toro of all people. There are a couple times in this movie where it sidestepped some obvious pitfalls (like using light switches against monsters that are weak against light), but this is just one of many instances where it swan dived right into one horror cliche after another.
It’s just so exhausting to watch a horror movie while swearing under your breath because the characters are the stupidest sonsabitches this side of Ernest P. Worrell. If this movie had ended at the 30-minute-mark or if someone had advised director Troy Nixey to go watch Alien and appreciate all the great things that happen when you don’t show the audience your monster, then Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark could have been awesome. But alas, none of these wishes came true and here we are with another forgettable, unoriginal, and laughably disappointing haunted house movie that’s outrageously tame for its R-rating. I’m sure there are worse haunted house movies out there and it’s probably not the worst horror movie that’ll come out this year, but Del Toro can do so much better. Anyone can do so much better.