Starring: Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison
Written by: Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), Matthew Robbins (“Mimic”)
Directed by: Troy Nixey (debut)
Although children are curious by nature, there are certain things that should frighten even the most precocious of kids. In “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” emotionally-unstable youngster Sally Hirst (Bailee Madison) hears strange and eerie whispering voices calling her name from the vents in her house. The voices beg for escape and invite her to play. Her reaction is to do all she can to let them out, rather than cower in fear. This questionable logic is the first in a series of distracting choices that riddle a horror film that lacks scares and leaves audiences muttering to themselves about the ridiculousness of it all.
Written and produced by well-established director Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), “Dark” follows Sally who has relocated from her mother’s house to a house being renovated by her father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes). While exploring a hidden basement, Sally finds a furnace occupied by tiny goblin-like creatures that steal sharp objects to attack their victims. They also crave children’s teeth and are sensitive to light. When the lights go out, these menacing and evil monsters whisper and torment Sally, who tries to convince her reluctant father their lives are in danger if they stay in the house.
Looking a little young for the age of the character she is playing, Bailee Madison feels like a slight miscast. Consistent with many of her films in her short-lived career, Madison’s ability to cry on cue is once again exploited. While she is obviously very good at letting the tears flow, there are always far too many scenes of her sobbing. With Madison being the main focus of the film, Holmes and Pearce both turn unmemorable supporting performances as the acceptance-craving Kim and the oblivious Alex.
Ranging from smaller implausible feats such as Sally being able to unscrew a bolt that has been sealed for perhaps hundreds of years to logical leaps that are out of place even in a horror film, “Dark” is full of moments that will leave audiences incredulous. The most annoying occurrence throughout the movie is how nobody in peril can seem to remember to flip a light switch to make the creatures scamper. As they thrash and scream, trying to fend off the fun-size miscreants, the lights only come on when someone barges down a locked door.
At one point in the film, Alex breaks down and admits he has no idea what to do. His mental crisis doesn’t come until after someone in the house is attacked and badly injured, his daughter is mentally and physically tormented, and his girlfriend slowly starts to believe Sally is telling the truth. Maybe leaving the house would be a good starting point?
While debut director Troy Nixey utilizes a few easy jump scares, a true sense of terror and dread is sorely missing. Even worse, the filmmakers strive for an entirely serious tone, which actually results in a few scenes intended to strike horror being ripe for unintentional laughter. Ultimately, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” falls victim to too many horror movie clichés. While much of the movie takes place in the dark, it is no excuse for characters to miss the solutions that are right in front of their faces.