Even though “Pan’s Labyrinth” mastermind Guillermo del Toro only wrote and produced “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” first-time director Troy Nixey handled the direction, with his twisted imagination coating every frame of the film. From the sharp-toothed beasts to the quietly damaged child at its center, the film would feel right at home with del Toro’s “The Devil’s Backbone” or “Pan’s Labyrinth.” It would be easy for Nixey to turn in a weak imitation of those films, but he manages to take del Toro’s tropes and make them his own with “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.”
Bailee Madison stars as Sally, a young girl passed off to absentee father Alex (Guy Pearce) and soon-to-be-stepmother Kim (Katie Holmes), who live in an ancient mansion they’ve been renovating. Like any mansion worth setting a movie in, the house has a dirty secret in its history — in this case, it’s hundreds of fanged, whispery monsters living in the basement that want to claim Sally for themselves.
While Pearce and Holmes have been the focus of most of the film’s advertising, neither of them is nearly as important to the film as Bailee Madison’s Sally. While Pearce struggles with a mostly thankless role and Holmes does strong, sympathetic work as Kim, Madison has the most screen time and easily gives the best performance in the film. It’s hard not to feel for Sally when she realizes her mother pawned her off and Madison makes the betrayal sting. She’s even better when being terrorized by the beasts from beneath the house, taking the fairly repetitive note of
Sally being scared out of her mind and always finding a way to make the audience just as unsettled.
“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” takes care to avoid getting bogged down in the character relationships, instead always giving us little teases of the mayhem to mix with the character-driven scenes. Nixey shows an impeccable understanding for the art of the slow burn, milking each of the film’s big scare scenes until the tension is borderline unbearable. Unfortunately, the film’s climax, while still pretty thrilling, falls short, never delivering the unbridled mayhem it’s been building towards.
“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is rated R, but it doesn’t earn the rating in spilled blood or white-knuckle terror, instead settling for an underwhelming ending that wraps up just a bit too easily.
“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” may not end on the greatest note, but it’s still a vastly entertaining film. The creature design is memorably devious and Madison’s performance elevates the film from pulpy fun to truly suspenseful. While it’s worth questioning if Troy Nixey can make such a fun film without Guillermo del Toro peeking over his shoulder, there’s no denying that “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is a worthwhile debut and one of the strongest horror films of the year.