|Bailee Madison, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark,Film District, 2011.|
There is a lot to be said for the Gothic haunted house film, it's roots in Victorian prose, Colonial folklore and Hollywood B-movies. Classic exponents of the sub-genre including Lewis Allen's The Uninvited (1944) and Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963) were shrouded in shadowy terror, their atmospheres the dreaded element, their mystery the treasured key. Dan Curtis' Dark Shadows(1966-71) and Burnt Offerings(1976) were top notch additions to the creepy cinematic house, and most recently Jan De Bont made an honorable remake with The Haunting(1999) and modern master Alejandro Amenabar crafted the brilliant The Others(2001).
What makes Troy Nixey's directorial debut Don't Be Afraid of the Dark so shatteringly disappointing, then, is the wasted promise of what could have been. Another modern master, Guillermo del Toro (The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth) has brought to fruition a big budgeted remake of an obscure 70s American TV movie he loved as a child. del Toro's strengths as a director have always been his combination of otherworldly vigor with gut instinct and pathos. Even in his most colossal fare, the two Hellboy films and Blade 2, he displayed his knack for personal flair and emotional levity.
Adapting the teleplay with forgotten director Matthew Robbins (Dragonslayer, The Legend of Billie Jean, batteries not included), del Toro starts off in that delicious vein. The script is a well-managed balance of his strengths with Robbins'. But then, at the halfway point, the entire affair succumbs to the weight of recent popular cinema. The devastation of preposterous plot device and ridiculous character motivation hangs the entire ludicrous affair out to dry.
Aside from the mostly horrible script, director Nixey shows a strength for style and bold visualization. The set design by Lucinda Thomson and Kerrie Brown is magnificent, enriched by Oliver Stapleton's creepily gorgeous cinematography. Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders' music score is an eclectic homage to old school Hollywood and Bernard Hermann in particular. The cast is outstanding with what little they are given, especially magnetic child actress Bailee Madison.
In the end, it comes down to the fact that the haunted house picture demands a certain level of skill and intelligence which, sadly, this new film just can't muster. A few years back, del Toro produced an awesome haunted house movie, The Orphanage, directed by the gifted Juan Antonio Bayona. The confluence of style and substance exuded by that Spanish film was remarkable in many ways that the ultimately half-assed Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is definitely not.