I was immediately intrigued when Guillermo del Toro's name popped up during the opening credits of "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark." Del Toro is a gifted storyteller, who can flawlessly mix real-world heartbreak with elements of mature fantasy. His ground-breaking "Pan's Labyrinth" most notably claimed a spot on my list of the 10 best films of the last decade. Del Toro's producing and co-screening credits for this movie had my expectations at their peak. Unfortunately, "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" is a movie that only remotely works.
Bailee Madison gives a genuinely good performance as Sally, a little girl who is dumped by her single mother. She's sent to live with her father, played by Guy Pearce, and his younger girlfriend, played by Katie Holmes. They live in an old mansion that the father is renovating. Sally discovers a secret basement where she hears something whispering from the fireplace. She opens the fireplace and unleashes numerous tiny, gruesome fairies that want to eat her teeth.
The highlight of the movie is its scenic design. The filmmakers have created one of the most stylish and creepy haunted houses in the history of movies. Everything from the old-fashion library, to the daunting staircases, to the otherworldly garden, to the cobwebbed basement is wonderful to look at. The house feels like a real character and supplies the film with the atmosphere of an R-rated version of Disney's "The Haunted Mansion."
With tasteful direction from first-timer Troy Nixey, strong performances, and a few chilling moments, I was fully prepared to give "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" a recommendation. But the film is held back by an inexcusable factor: Pearce's idiot father! Pearce's character naturally doesn't believe his daughter when she tells him about the little mutants terrorizing the house. Who would? But when one of his workers turns up half dead and his girlfriend finds documented proof of these creature's existence, he still refuses to believe what's right in front of him. There hasn't been a more oblivious parent in a thriller since the insultingly stupid adults in "The Good Son."
By the third time the father blames Sally for the actions of the little monsters, "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" really starts to feel like a broken record. There does come a time when Pearce's character finally comprehends what's going on and decides to leave the house. But that moment just seems abrupt as if the screenwriters said, "It's time for the movie to end now." At least the characters in "Insidious" were smart enough to try and leave their haunted house by the end of the film's first act.
Then there are the little monsters, which really aren't that interesting or frightening. There's a certain level of dread to these creatures during the film's opening in which we only hear their whispering voices. When the film decides to reveal them to the audience though, they get old pretty fast. Compared to the cruel and menacing villains del Toro developed in "Pan's Labyrinth," they feel like letdowns. Come to think of it, didn't del Toro already experimented with little mutant tooth fairies in "Hellboy II: The Golden Army?"
There's much to admire in "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark." But given all the potential it had, I have to ultimately decline the film for its dull villains and that stupid, stupid father. If you leave about 30 minutes into the picture though, you might think that you walked out of a pretty good movie.