The two genres that Hollywood loves to put out between their blockbuster tentpoles are comedies and horror films. These are the films that can get very favorable profits after being produced on relatively low budgets. In 2011 we’ve seen an absolute glut of comedies, especially R-rated comedies like Bridesmaids, The Hangover: Part 2, Bad Teacher, Horrible Bosses, and 30 Minutes or Less. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that we’ve had an absolute drought of decent horror movies in the first half of the year. The only horror films to get a wide release in 2011 have been the vanilla-looking Insidious, the unnecessarily remade Fright Night, yet another Final Destination film, and yet another Scream movie. It’s this environment that had fans of the genre placing a lot of hope on a relatively small horror film called Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a movie which wasn’t a needless sequel, didn’t look like a ripoff on its surface, and wasn’t a remake (at least not a remake of something that the average horror fan had heard of or cared about). More importantly, the film had Guillermo del Toro’s name on it, albeit as a producer rather than as a director. Given that del Toro is a guy who knows his horror and that his previous producer credits were attached to such solid genre fare as The Orphanage and Splice hopes were pretty high for this one.
The film revolves around an old mansion in rural Rhode Island that was once inhabited by a famous landscape painter who disappeared along with his son in the late 19th Century. A hundred odd years later the house has been bought by an architect named Alex Hirst (Guy Pearce), who is refurbishing it along with his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) who acts as the interior decorator. The film opens with the arrival of Sally (Bailee Madison), Alex’s ten year old daughter from a previous marriage who will be staying with Alex and Kim while they try to get the house sold. This arrival is bumpy for Sally, who feels she is unwanted by both of her parents, and it’s in this state that she begins to hear strange voices coming through the vents in the house, especially out of a strange ash vent in the previously hidden basement of the house.
At this point I feel like I need to give away what’s making the voices that Sally is hearing, which could be considered a minor spoiler but I feel it’s fair given that this is pretty much revealed in the film’s first third. What differentiates this film from most haunted house movies is that the supernatural force in the house is not a ghost; it’s a race of small subterranean rodent-looking things that eat teeth and bones. Doesn’t quite sound frightening yet? Well how about if I tell you that these things are allergic to light, can be killed easily, and aren’t very effective at killing people even when they attack in swarms and have small bladed instruments at their disposal. Yeah… I feel like the root problem with this movie is that it vastly overestimates how scary these things are. They can also be rather bumbling at times, maybe not to the extent of the monsters from Gremlins, but they’re certainly in the same ballpark. What’s more they should be pretty familiar to any Guillermo del Toro, as he more or less used a variation on the things for a lighthearted action scene early in the film Hellboy 2: The Golden Army.
This could have worked as a sort of horror-comedy for kids like the aforementioned Gremlins, or maybe Poltergeist, but instead director Troy Nixey has given us a dead serious, R-rated, horror movie that only works sporadically. To the film’s credit, they were able to find an interesting house to haunt. The mansion certainly has that New England gothic look to it that one would want out in a movie like this. I also liked the way they discuss the house’s history and the fate of its previous owner and his art (even if the way they eventually learn it is completely contrived). I’d also give some degree of praise to Bailee Madison’s performance as the frightened girl at the film’s center, who pretty effectively conveys the characters frustration and make the kid pretty sympathetic.
The same cannot be said for the film’s adult leads, Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce, who both exacerbate the shortcoming that this film (and most haunted house movies) suffers from: that the characters are oblivious to the fact they are living in a haunted house. Like most of these movies the monsters take forever to finally strike and before they do they needlessly make a bunch of false starts that should tip any reasonable person off to the fact that they should probably find a new place to live. This often involves clueless adults failing to hear things at the right time, refusing to look at evidence that is being offered, and failing to connect obvious dots. This particular film even has a side character that knows exactly what is going on, and instead of warning the participants in clear terms he decides to give them oblique clues that will pad out the running time a little bit more and give the filmmakers more opportunities to stage attack sequences that go nowhere.
What makes supernatural horror movies so different from slasher movies and torture porn and the like is that supernatural horror movies don’t just scare you with the individual kill scenes, they care you with the thought of some ancient evil that could be unleashed upon the world. For instance, it isn’t really Jack Nicholson with an axe that makes The Shining so frightening (though admittedly that’s pretty frightening), it’s the idea that there is some mysterious malevolent force that has controlled the Overlook Hotel for generations. In Don’t be Afraid of the Dark we that force isn’t all that mysterious, in fact we know for a fact that it’s a bunch of little trolls that can be killed with a flashlight, and on top of that the individual horror set pieces aren’t all that great either (again, because the villain is a swarm of little trolls). So all we’re really left with is a rather formulaic movie with a stock family of characters and a jump scare or two. I’m not sure why Guillermo del Toro would put his stamp of approval on such a thing, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend that anyone see that name and think this would be something on the level of The Devil’s Backbone or The Orphanage. Granted, the film doesn’t exude awfulness as some films in this genre do and we are in a horror movie drought, but that doesn’t mean that this deserves any sort of pass.
** out of Four