Frightfest Film Review: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

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Country House

(Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Troy Nixey, US, 2011, 99 mins)

[Warning: This review discusses some aspects of the plot]

The titles call it Troy Nixey’s film but it’s the signature of producer and co-writer Guillermo Del Toro that’s etched across each frame of this impressively mounted but curiously non affecting gothic fairy tale.

Indiscreet atmospherics underwrite its failure. Del Toro, an accomplished stylist, is mindful of the movie’s architecture to the exclusion of all else; the Victorian pile with its demonic lodgers is a character that’s given a great deal of attention; the humans are part of the furniture. The idea is that the crimson walls, and the night light with the sinister shade in the child’s bedroom, casting shadows across them, will induce discomfort and make the audience more susceptible to suggestion, but it’s a parlour trick and one we’re wise to, thanks to the neglected plot.

Nixey, making his debut, is a little too enamoured with his mentor and so concentrates on mood and sound design and making the most of that lavish set, but what the movie really needed was attention to story construction, a little more thought in conception. As it is the monsters, borne of childhood fears; they’re kiddy snatchers, they move around your bedroom at night, they feed on your teeth; are established as a presence too early, are seen too soon and fail to intimidate. Why? Perhaps the imagination hasn’t been made to work hard enough and the filmmakers fail to match whatever we might have placed in those shadows. If the reveal is premature, the dread on the down low, Nixey hopes to patch up his movie with sound and fury, but horror veterans have had these devices inculcated to the point where it must be like going for a swim for the hundredth time; the water only feels dangerous the first time you go in.

So what of the humans? Even here, characters seem more designed than developed. Bailee Madison and Katie Holmes look like two ages of the same person, suggesting an empathy borne of childhood trauma (the detail of Holmes’, though mentioned, is never revealed). Everyone’s dressed in dark, autumnal colours so they compliment the Rhode Island backdrop. Guy Pearce is a cold fish and eschews colourful dress.

Being a mood piece, plot developments have received scant attention. If you can steal your gaze from the enchanted garden, the basement boiler plate and the antique accoutrements, you might wonder why Pearce endures his daughter’s cries and conspicuous terror night after night, rather than removing her from the environment that’s unsettling her mind.

If two people, including the daughter who’s already reported intruders on the premises, witnessed the grounds keeper emerge bloody and close to death from the cellar, the victim of a frenzied attack, you might investigate the circumstances. Yet when this occurs it’s brushed aside as one of those things (you know what old people are like, clumsy, self-harming), and it isn’t until Madison’s troubles escalate that a nervous Holmes visits the old man to question him.

The title, a disclaimer of sorts, hopes to affect a form of reverse psychology on its audience but in reality it’s a one line review of what follows. There’s little here to trouble sensitive patrons. This is a movie painted in oils but written in crayon.

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