If a horror film needs to pass the smell test—that is, be grounded in some sort of credible reality—in order for you to enjoy it, steer clear of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. It’s filled with ridiculous implausibilities that had me rolling my eyes (in the dark).
But at some point, I must admit, that I gave into the film’s impressionistic pleasures. It succeeds more as a sensory experience than a narrative one. It’s about two things essentially: A very creepy house (filled with very creepy things that go bump in the night) and a very scared, but very determined, little girl. Judged on that criteria alone, it’s a complete success.
Bailee Madison, the excellent, somber-faced child star who shined in 2009’s Brothers, plays Sally, a sad little girl—she’s shown popping Adderall—who is sent to live with her architect father (Guy Pearce) and his interior decorator girlfriend (Katie Holmes) in the giant gothic mansion they are renovating together. Because yes, the best place for a depressed little girl is an isolated mansion in the middle of nowhere without another child in sight. And by all means, give that girl a creepy rotating music box that casts shadows on the wall and a menacing talking stuffed bear, the sort of which is only seen in horror films. And certainly, let her wander around the spooky dank basement even after the groundskeeper has been attacked there by unseen forces. (Ahem.)
The groundskeeper in question has shifty, crazy eyes that say “I know more than I’m letting on” and first time director Troy Nixey (the film is co-written and executive produced by Mexican horror savant Guillermo del Toro) keeps shooting him in melodramatic close-up, causing my audience to titter. (An intentional joke? Or do the filmmakers simply not care if they’re trotting out old horror tropes, as long as the are sufficiently disturbing? I suspect the latter.)
But again, as I said, plausibility is not the name of the game here. Creepiness is. And Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark creates a mood of gothic terror that will have you good and spooked, even if they take the child-in-peril thing a little too far for my own personal taste. (To mitigate the exploitation factor, Bailee Madison is a brilliant casting choice. She seems so thoroughly self-possessed, you expect her to be the one protecting the adults, not the other way around.)
One of the great bits in the film involves a Polaroid camera that Sally has dangling around her neck, part to document the nighttime critters and part to use as weapon. Of course, no one uses Polaroid cameras anymore (Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a remake of a 1970s TV film, for what it’s worth.). And, for that matter, no Polaroid camera contains as much film or battery power as the one Sally brandishes. But it’s hard to quibble over the anachronism—or any of the film’s numerous preposterous twists—when Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark gives you such a delicious and shivery case of the creeps.