Everyone has fond memories about losing their baby teeth, joyfully placing them under their pillow before going to sleep, in hopes that the tooth fairy would replace the teeth with money. But, what if the tooth fairy had more sinister plans, to kidnap children and feast on their flesh, bones and teeth? This is exactly the idea “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” explores.
Based on the 1973 TV movie of the same name, said to have terrified Guillermo del Toro so much that he made it his life’s work to create imaginative horror tales of his own. “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” produced by del Toro and directed by feature-length newcomer Troy Nixey from a script by del Toro and Matthew Robbins, is a tense, stomach-churning Gothic horror film that will have you wanting to keep all the lights on in your home as darkness falls.
The film opens with a chilling prologue, in which we see a horse-drawn carriage traveling through the Rhode Island countryside at nightfall. The carriage stops in front of a Victorian mansion. Then, in what appears to be homage to the iconic opening shot of “Citizen Kane,” the camera rises above the mansion’s fence, moving closer and closer to the mansion. Once inside, the mansion’s owner, a crazed Emerson Blackwood (Garry McDonald), lures his young maid into the basement, where he proceeds to gruesomely rip her teeth out. Blackwood then opens the basement vent and offers the teeth to strange, whispering creatures that refuse his offering. Instead, the creatures pull Blackwood into the vent to feast on his body.
Fast-forward to present day, a curious and doleful young girl, Sally (Bailee Madison), is sent to live with her architect father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his interior designer girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) in Rhode Island. Alex and Kim are busy renovating the long abandoned Blackwood mansion, in hopes of being featured on the cover of Architect’s Digest, a commendation that would revitalize Alex’s career.
With Alex and Kim preoccupied, Sally is left alone to wander the creepy, enormous mansion and the garden labyrinth on its grounds. One day, while exploring the labyrinth, Sally discovers a basement beneath the overgrown shrubbery. Her father, flabbergasted that he had not known about the basement, manages to find the basement’s hidden entrance in their foyer staircase.
Later, Sally hears whispering voices through the mansion walls. These voices are the aforementioned creatures that killed Emerson Blackwood those many years ago. They beckon Sally to come to the basement to play. Sally attempts to befriend the creatures but soon realizes they have more horrifying plans for her.
Frightened, Sally repeatedly tries to convince her father and Kim that she is being terrorized by tiny creatures. Her father, unconvinced, writes it off as imagination getting the best of her. Thus, the horror continues.
The meticulously written script by del Toro and Robbins provides the film with the perfect amount of genuinely startling moments of terror and quite a few anxiety inducing moments. They also do a great job depicting the detached and often strained relationship between father and daughter and her dislike for her father’s girlfriend and how these feelings change over the course of the film.
With del Toro serving as producer and co-writer, it is not shocking that the film has his visual stamp all over it. The visuals are very reminiscent of del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” from the look of the mansion’s garden labyrinth to the dark and shadowy ambiance of the film. Newcomer Nixey with the help of cinematographer Oliver Stapleton brings his own flare to the project, with his cameras in constant motion, gliding toward characters and objects and then pulling back to show the surroundings. A nifty moving shot features the camera darting through the vents of the mansion.
Nixey further demonstrates his directorial expertise by ratcheting up the nerve-racking tension throughout. Nixey structures the scenes in a manner in which we expect the worst, but the characters continually move out of harm’s way in the nick of time. This keeps us uneasy, making the horrifying, gruesome events all the more terrifying.
Unfortunately, the CGI, though done exceptionally well, at times turns the terror down a notch. The filmmakers would have done better to keep the creatures cloaked in shadow for the entirety of the film.
As for the acting, it could not have been better, especially the work of the central trio. Pearce (“The King’s Speech,” “Animal Kingdom”), in a thankless role, is perfect as an inattentive father, who loves his daughter mostly out of obligation and refuses to believe that creatures are after her. Holmes (“The Romantics,” “Batman Begins”) is excellent as Alex’s girlfriend and interior designer, who seeing some of herself in Sally, continually attempts to bond with the young girl. Madison (“Just Go With It,” “Brothers”) shows us she has the potential for a promising career, adeptly portraying the lonely, distant and curious nature of her character. She also conveys a courageous and determined will to ward off her attackers. On a side note, Madison has an uncanny resemblance to Holmes; someone should create a starring vehicle for the two actresses with Madison as the younger version of Holmes.
The creepy and wondrous score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders operates as a nightmarish lullaby, exquisitely matching both the curiosity of Sally and the horror of the film.
Beside a few very minor lapses, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is a terrifying film that will fill the pit of your stomach with an overwhelming feeling of dread.
(“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is rated R for gruesome violence and terror. It can be seen at AMC Loews Jersey Gardens 20 and other nearby theaters.)
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