It took me three days (off and on) to write this review. But since the movie doesn’t come out for 3 days (at the time of this posting), it’s still on time!
My friend and I were lucky enough to attend a pre-release screening of Guillermo del Toro’s latest movie, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, thanks to one of our local comic book retailers. While I don’t consider myself any kind of a film-buff, I’ve seen a few of del Toro’s previous works and appreciate how deftly he weaves art and context together to form his stories. Even more interesting, del Toro didn’t direct this one himself (wrote and produced), instead picking Troy Nixey based on his sole previous effort, Latchkey’s Lament, a short film of unique vision.
My immediate impression experiencing Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was that the movie takes a novel approach. Instead of trying to woo the audience into complacency with ideal scenes of nature or mundane every-dayness (thus making it easier to have an impact), the very first scene is twisted, dark, and shocking. It tells the audience “Hey, this is a movie that’s going to make you squirm” right in the first few minutes (and boy, are you going to squirm).
I mean, that’s something right out of the classics! Even the opening credits try to recall the golden age of horror films (like The Phantom of the Opera or Dracula), but with a more modern twist. The closest I can compare it to is the title sequences from the PBS program Mystery!, which was based on the artwork of Edward Gorey.
Now, the rest of this is going to get a bit spoilery, so as fair warning:
The plot is pretty straightforward. You meet Blackwell, famed artist, in his basement as he attempts to appease the creatures who took his son, and fails. Flash to modern day, and his house, long left in disarray, is being painstakingly restored by Alex (Guy Pearce) and Kim (Katie Holmes). Alex’s daughter Sally (Bailee Madison) is coming to live with them. It soon becomes clear that Sally has had an abnormal childhood, thanks in large part to her mother (who has had her on medication) and the divorce. Kim, herself a survivor of a rough childhood, empathizes with Sally, but there’s obvious tension as she is “the girlfriend”. With no one her age around, and looking for some kind of escape (common theme of del Toro’s), Sally goes off exploring the mansion and grounds, discovering a hidden basement, a rarity in an area plagued with sinkholes. Alex, enthusiastic for the rare find, finds the entrance, and they all go in. Sally discovers an old ash pit, and subsequently, the dark fey creatures discover her.
Okay, that wasn’t so much spoilery as it was the first 30 minutes of the movie.
The creatures themselves are quite fascinating. I’m not going to name them since it’d ruin del Toro’s fun, and the man is a true master of weaving mythology into his stories (almost on par with Tolkien, Gaiman, and Pratchett in my opinion), but I will mention their voices. It’s like Gollum, but a bit more whispered. Very creepy and very addictive (my friend and I were using the voice for days after).
This movie really exemplifies the deftness with which del Toro, and apparently Nixey, can capture attention without resorting to modern horror-industry staples designed to shock and disgust the audience (buckets of gore, appalling dismemberment, unbelievably impractical means of bloodshed, etc.). To my recollection, there are only 3 moments of true gruesome violence, and each one is deftly placed for maximum impact. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing subtle about the horror here – it’s simply more refined. You aren’t effected because it’s disgusting to see torn flesh or hear the sickening crunch of bone, but also because there’s a gut-wrenching emotional evocation. It brings a certain beauty to a genre built on the ghoulish.
At this point, I’m sure you think I’m far from objective. But you’d be wrong. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark does have it’s flaws. There are scenes that were too slow to my liking. Kim has an affinity for old flashbar cameras, that while frequently seen and used as a plot device, is never quite explained (or are we just supposed to accept it as part of her hipster nature?). And Alex is too shallow as a character for my liking. Don’t get me wrong, he has his moments, but there’s something vital missing from his character. And, (!SPOILER!), why are the locals hiding the faeries’ secret to such an extent?
But while the movie doesn’t have the same perfectly-polished feel as one del Toro directs himself, Nixey is no slouch (did I mention he’s an accomplished comic book artist?). Through a breathtaking combination of cinematography, plot, and artistic vision, he seeks out that primal emotional center in each audience member, caresses it, and then starts squeezing. Take the above plot summary as an example: by opening the movie with Blackwell and introducing the monsters to the audience, but keeping his main characters in the dark, there is a simple yet pressing tension throughout the movie.
There’s nothing new or groundbreaking in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. But that wasn’t the goal. It’s less a big-budget scream-fest and more a treatise on the Horror genre. The goal was to take what works about classic horror, give it a contemporary twist, and scare the pants off the audience. And it succeeded: the ending – well, in del Toro’s own words – “[H]its you like a motherfucker!”