“DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK” IS AS BEAUTIFUL AND PRIMAL IN ITS VISCERAL TERROR AS “PAN’S LABYRINTH”
Sally Hirst is a well-cast child character who automatically gets believability points regardless of how stupid her decisions may be. That’s one of the biggest positives “Don’t be Afraid of the Dark” has considering how good it is. For a horror like this to work, the inherent choices the characters make must be – at least partly – understandable, if not believable. In many ways, “Pan’s Labyrinth” can be used as a fascinating companion piece because of this, as both have young female protagonists who look at their new-found fantasy realm with a wide-eyed hope that the creatures they find will take them away from their unhappy home life. Unfortunately for Sally, her other-worldly creatures aren’t so innocent.
When Sally’s father, Alex (Guy Pearce; “Memento”), and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes; “Batman Begins”) move into a large unused mansion with the hope of renovating and selling it for a fortune, Sally (Bailee Madison; “Brothers”) is sent to live with them by Sally’s partying mother. Kim is well-played by Holmes as a woman who desperately doesn’t want to take the role as the evil stepmother, yet she can’t help but want to intervene at how distant and off-putting Alex is with his daughter. Sally is a sad and quiet little girl, who feels unloved and alone by everyone she knows.
The family finds a hidden basement stairwell behind a hollow wall which leads to one of those uber-creepy dungeon basements that always seem to be chosen for such films. It seemed to have been used by the last owner, who mysteriously disappeared decades ago, as an art room of sorts. A bolted-shut old-fashioned fireplace (which leads down into a deeper part of the mansion’s foundation) lies dejectedly in the corner. Sally is fairly quickly drawn to this fireplace, where she hears hissing voices that intrigue her. They call out from the darkness, asking her to free them and to be their friend.
It’s right around here where “Pan’s Labyrinth” is helpful. For most audiences, we assume that, if a little girl really heard creepy voices from a fireplace, she’d run screaming and never come back. If she had done that, none of this crap would have happened to her. True. But we forget what kind of character Sally is, her age, and her issues. She is alone. And when anyone that young feels that alone, I could easily see that child putting far too much faith in even the possibility of escape. Like Ophilia from “Pan’s Labyrinth.” In Guillermo del Toro’s mind, the faith of a child can lead to monstrous things.
Anyway, once these creatures are free, we slowly learn just how terrifying they can be, what they did to the inhabitants who lived there a century ago, why they hate the light, and what their truly eerie plan is for the poor three individuals who live in that house. The light gives some small weakness, so that gives our threesome something to do in order to protect themselves, but these creatures are dang crafty and know how to keep the ball in their court by turning off all the lights. And so goes the story. On the surface, it’s a very average premise, I’d say. Not one that is really original or unique.
What IS unique is Guillermo del Toro.
Written by del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) and first-time director Troy Nixey, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” has lofty ambitions. It takes a tired, overused trope of the horror genre (the “creepers in the haunted house” gimmick) and reinvigorates it with that Guillermo del Toro’s style of hypnotic discomfort you feel right in your gut.
We enter an unsettling darkness that feels far more unmistakably chilling than any other horror similar to its plot. An engrossing tidbit worthy of mention is how this film has no language, no gore, no blood, no sexuality, and no nudity. Yet we get an R rating. Originally, the MPAA passed down the unprecedented rating as “pervasive scariness.” So here we have a horror film that got slapped with an R rating just for being too freaking scary. Does it deserve that uniqueness? In many ways, it does. The terror inflicted on our senses is almost invasive with nightmarish imagery and Madison’s jarring performance.
Speaking of performances, here we get acting performances – especially from Holmes and Madison – that are consistently better than horror films traditionally get. Instead of “Final Destination,” we get “Frailty.” Madison – who is easily the greatest part of the movie – ups the game we saw in “Brothers” and promises future greatness that may surpass Dakota Fanning. She outshines Pearce and Holmes with raw emotion.
The Gothic art design (especially the house itself, basement mural, and the Blackwood paintings), unforgettable cinematography (Oliver Stapleton is a certified genius with his transformation of darkness as the movie’s greatest menace), imperial writing (del Toro’s precise ear for terror) and perfect music (Oscar-nominated Marco Beltrami) always overshadow the bare-bones premise – which is a huge compliment. Film-making wise, I don’t think del Toro himself could have directed this better.
Ultimately, the film’s components make themselves far more majestic than the premise deserves. The components alone easily make this one of the most guttural horror experiences I’ve had in years. The unflinching infliction of fear upon us approaches primal ferociousness.
I only felt slight disappointment with how the nightmare didn’t remain without a face. The film had masterpiece potential if we never saw the creatures other than the terrifying artwork. It’s an unfortunate reality that we tend to stop fearing the things we can put a face to – and the CGI creatures are rather underwhelming.
The greatest success of this film is a small miracle considering how numb we’ve become to a genre filled with fake scares and clumsy killers. This movie produces that irrational kind of fear that paralyzed us as children. We remember what made us so squeamish about going down in the basement when all the lights were off. We remember why we were afraid of something particularly hungry lived beneath our bed. We remember why we hid our heads beneath the sheets, as if that would protect us from the approaching carnage. Where horror films are concerned, what more could you possibly want?