A steady buzz has been building around Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, the latest creature feature from the mind of Guillermo del Toro, whose overrated Pan’s Labyrinth put him on the map as far as Hollywood is concerned. Though he’s not behind the camera this time, his name is front and center as the writer and producer of this tale that centers on a little girl, who actually does have monsters under her bed, and the disbelieving adults who think she simply wants to stay up past her bedtime.
The young girl in question is Sally (Bailee Madison), a depressed youngster who’s being shuttled back and forth between her unseen mother and well-meaning father, Alex (Guy Pearce), who’s an architect that specializes in rehabbing old mansions. His latest project is a gothic monstrosity that’s featured in the film’s frightening prologue. Sally’s been sent to live there with dear old dad and his new girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes), to whom she takes an instant dislike. Bored child that she is, the girl decides to explore the grounds and stumbles upon a hidden studio, into which she ventures, much to the dread of Harris the gardener (Jack Thompson), who knows more than he lets on. Of course, Sally can’t stay away from this room, especially once she’s been forbidden to enter it and she ends up unwittingly releasing a group of malevolent imps who terrorize the household for the sole purpose of – get this – finding children’s teeth to eat.
Director Troy Nixey does a fine job of winding up the audience during the first two-thirds of the film. Quick glimpses of the shadowy creatures, cryptic whispers from unseen sources and a wonderfully gloomy setting make for a ripe gothic atmosphere. But once the monsters show themselves, the spell is broken as they are anything but scary and are, at times, laughable. The viewer is constantly aware that they’re looking at an awkward CGI creation and with that in mind, any menace they might have generated – unseen – is gone. References to del Toro’s Labyrinth as well as Coraline and Rear Window are obvious and sometimes desperate (Why are there so many old school Polaroid cameras around?), but there’s no doubt that the ending is inspired and effective. Unfortunately, Mixey didn’t realize that some monsters are better off heard and not seen.
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