Guillermo del Toro is no stranger to grim fairytales. The Mexican director’s masterful Pan’s Labyrinth was a shrewd, unsettling exercise in measured chills and caustic creativity. So his decision to script and produce this creepy curio comes as a welcome return to horror for the influential moviemaker, and with Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark pirouetting on a similar premise – young girl encounters savage beasties that nobody else can see – it’s an enticing prospect. Sadly, del Toro isn’t able to bottle the fairy dust quite as easily this second time around, though he comes close at times.
Still dealing with her parents’ recent divorce, troubled young Sally (Bailee Madison) is sent to stay with her father (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes) in a Rhode Island mansion. The grown-ups are renovating the residence, but soon Sally discovers there are sinister things afoot as voices speak to her in the dark, and she catches glimpses of small, beady-eyed menaces.
Loosely based on a made-for-TV movie from 1973 (of which del Toro was a fan), Don’t Be Afraid… is best when it mucks in for old-school chills. Book-ending his film with bursts of dirty violence, first-time director Troy Nixey plays it smart by keeping his rat-sized nasties in the shadows and immersing proceedings in a suggestive gloom. Best of all is the teeth-gnashing opener, sure to have many squirming in their seats. It’s disappointing, then, that everything that follows merely struggles to match the opening stinger for bed-wetting terror. As inconsistencies begin to pile up (Sally manages to squish one foul creature, but fails to show her father the evidence), and the drawn-out climax takes too long to deliver, Don’t Be Afraid… becomes sluggish and repetitive. Sadly, that title proves prophetic – there’s nothing really here to be afraid of. 3/5