Troy Nixhey, 2010 (USA-Australia-Mexico)
Anyone troubled by thick shadows and impregnable darkness need not really be worried by “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”. Troy Nixey’s adaptation of favoured 70’s TV movie horror of the same name offers up Movie Darkness, which means that we barely ever get real, pitch darkness. The darkness that is offered is often inconsistent; for example, the basement – surely meant to make the title really something to worry about – is brightly lit and the creatures are mostly glaringly visible in dull light; which also negates the whole they can’t stand the light clause. After a prologue featuring a crowd-pleasing teeth assault (the audience I saw this with were audibly delighted and troubled) the film skips through it’s clichés cheerfully enough without doing anything new or damaging: whispery voices; a bathroom assault; bad dialogue; something under the dining table at daddy’s big business meal; characterisation that never goes up a gear; no one believes the troubled child, and so on.
The girl – Sally (Bailee Maddison) – is the troubled and precocious mini-Goth soul of divorced parents; then mum sends her to stay with dad, multiplying her alienation and sense of rejection, which manifests in moroseness and tearful outbursts. Courtesy of the big name associated with this production – Guillermo el Toro had a hand in the screenplay and production – Dad (Guy Pearce) lives in a huge, gothic old house that he is restoring with his new interior designer girlfriend (Katie Holmes). We do not really get a grand tour of this remarkable building as the action is mostly confined to a handful of rooms, so our sense of its size is mostly limited to its impressive grounds and exterior shots. Nevertheless, within five minutes, the girl is finding the basement that no one else has noticed and hearing voices saying they want to play with her and that her parents do not love her. In truth, Sally seems a bit too smart and aware to fall for this ruse, but in no time she is heading into the cellar all alone and so on. The homunculi – who like to eat children’s teeth especially (a better use of the Tooth Fairy myth than “Darkness Falls” ) – act increasingly aggressively, and for a moment they are mischievous and give the film its one truly gleefully macabre moment: they manipulate a toy teddy bear to make the girl think it is alive. But dad is too preoccupied with reviving his career to pay full attention to her monster tales. Meanwhile, potential step-mom is increasingly concerned at her boyfriend’s blinkered treatment of his daughter and starts to befriend Sally. A little feminist bonding gives the staid characterisation some lift and colour. Step-mom starts to investigate Sally’s story and luckily, inevitably, inexcusably, there is a Librarian of Exposition to put into place that this may all be the fault of ancient fairies, etc.
In the end, impressive set design only goes so far as compensation for a really tired narrative, and a constantly gliding and faux-showy camera cannot disguise that tiredness. Worst of all, the film is sloppy with details: does that pretty bedside map casting eerie horses on the wall play music all the time or just sometimes? There’s a monster arm lying on the floor… does no one notice? Or, as Unkle Lancifer says: “the film’s largest break from known reality involves not fairy monsters but a magical Polaroid camera that never runs out of film.” (*kindertrauma) Del Toro’s customary fairy tale trimmings are nice without really bringing more than nice décor and some colourful backstory, the kind that his Hellboy deals with before breakfast. As Lancifer wisely notes, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” would work better as a PG horror, and the teeth chiselling that starts it off seems more tacked on in order to bump up its superficial horror ratings credibility. Ultimately, the camera can’t stop gliding, there is little stillness or true darkness to truly unsettle and the most troubling and perhaps daring result of the film is that the stepmother is undeservedly sacrificed to sate these manifestations of the child’s latent fury and resentment at her situation. Shame the film is too shallow to make the most of this genuinely chilling subtext.
But it is true that the homunculi are spooky and steal the show.