“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is a Moody, Gothic Treat

As I start my review for “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” I must confess one thing: I’m not a fan of supernatural horror movies. While I admire haunted house films like “Poltergeist”, I’ve always found this subgenre of horror to be painfully dull and its characters to be agonizingly stupid (“The Amityville Horror”, I’m looking at you). They usually have the same formula: a stupid, yuppie couple (occasionally with children) buy a house, move in, hear strange noises, and bad things happen. Rinse and repeat. So, going into “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”, my expectations were pretty low. After reading some not so positive reviews online, they sank even further. So is “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” worth screaming for? Well..more on that in a bit.

The film begins with a gruesome prologue shows the home’s deranged first owner, Emerson Blackwood, luring his maid into the dungeon-like basement and performing medieval dentistry on the terrified young woman. As he carries out the atrocity, he explains to the young maid that they, the goblin-like creatures known as Homunculi, have taken his son and will only give him back with teeth. As the young woman screams, whispering can be heard all around the room from the sealed up fireplace. Blackwood makes his way over to the fireplace and offers the teeth in exchange for the return of his son, only to be told his offering wasn’t acceptable and he is pulled into the fireplace. The basement is sealed and forgotten over the generations.

The movie then opens with a young girl, Sally Hirst (Bailee Madison), moving into Blackwood Manor, the Gothic mansion being restored by her architect father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes), an interior decorator. Her father is renovating the house they live in, in hopes of having it on the front page of a known magazine. Due to the fact that her mother recently abandoned her, Sally has become a distant child with emotional vulnerability. Although Kim tries to befriend her, Sally alienates herself from her.

One day, Sally hears voices calling her name and follows them — finding a hidden basement with a fireplace that has been bolted shut. She is drawn toward the fireplace, as she can hear voices that beg her to open it, promising friendship. One day she sneaks into the basement to open the fireplace, but her father stops her before she can get the door completely open. The Homunculi escape, however, and begin to torment Sally at night telling her to turn the lights out.

As the days progress, Kim finds one of her dresses shredded. Shortly afterward, a teddy bear that Kim gave to Sally is found destroyed underneath her bed after she yelled for her Dad having been scared by the creatures. Sally claims that someone (or something) else is to blame for these things, but her father does not believe her and is preoccupied with renovating the house. Kim, however, begins to believe her claims, as strange incidents occur more frequently. But is it too late?

“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is over-the-top, melodramatic, and full of plot holes. But, you know what dear reader, I loved every minute of it. This is the kind of movie in which logic is thrown out the door before the opening credits even begin. It is atmospheric in a way that has been missing from most horror movies today. Those that were disappointed by the lack of Gothic overtones in “Fright Night” will be in Heaven here. The sets are gorgeous and the fluid use of cinematography is inviting in a way that makes you feel at home with these gawkily little creatures. The acting here is a bit hit or miss. Guy Pearce is terrible as the father who doesn’t seem to care whether his girlfriend or his daughter lives or dies. His performance is bland to the point of sleepwalking through his role. Katie Holmes, on the other hand, is a revelation. It’s nice to see a strong, female role in which she is neither helpless nor a shrewd bitch. She thoroughly blew me away and has a few very touching scenes with Madison. Madison makes for a convincingly scared child but her performance is a bit hit or miss. Overall, if you are in the mood for a moody, Gothic treat, you could do far, far worse than “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”.