DIRECTOR Troy Nixey WRITER Guillermo del Toro; Matthew Robbins; Nigel McKeand (1973 teleplay) STARS Katie Holmes; Guy Pearce; Bailee Madison DVD & BLU-RAY 20 February
Presented by Guillermo del Toro, this brooding dark fairy tale has the veneer of the great filmmaker, but lacks the masterful touch and substance of his directorial work. This would be because despite his name featuring prominently on the promotional material, del Toro only co-wrote the screenplay. Saying that, the director, the relatively unknown Troy Nixey, has done a solid job despite the burden of expectation created by the association.
Adapted from a 1970s TV movie, the story focuses on Sally (Bailee Madison), a young girl caught between two divorced parents. Her mother is disinterested and her father, Alex (Guy Pearce), is well-meaning yet distracted by his business and new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes). Sally is forced upon Alex by her mother just as he and Kim have moved into an old gothic house which they plan to renovate. Her youthful curiosity soon leads her to encounter the supernatural residents of the building: a pack of grotesque fairies. At first these appear as benign tricksters, but they quickly betray their evil, even murderous, intentions.
The hideous little sprites are wonderfully realised without being over-played. The creature effects do not disappoint and the CGI is executed perfectly. Sadly though, if you have watched the trailer then you have seen the best of them — but the big jump-scare still works! The acting is also first-rate; indeed Madison, the child lead, eclipses her seniors, which is high praise when cast with such stalwarts as Pearce and Holmes.
However something about this film is lacking. Under the impressive visuals and solid cast there are genuine flaws, and it allows itself to surrender to cliché too easily. For example: it is fine that we have the ‘child living with divorced parent’ trope — most, if not all, of the characters in this film are familiar cardboard cut-outs — but when that father is too distracted and steadfastly refuses to believe his daughter’s claims of the supernatural despite all the evidence to the contrary, it becomes tiresome. The plot also has some holes, not least of which is that it would be easy for Sally to obtain conclusive proof of the fairies’ existence on several occasions — a point annoyingly ignored by the script. As co-writer, del Toro has to take the blame for this. He clearly had an influence on the wonderful stylistic elements of this film, but I wonder if Nixey would have created something similar without him.
It is easy to criticise Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark because of the standards one expects from del Toro, but take his legacy out of the equation and you are left with a very solid and atmospheric tale with a fine cast and some good scares along the way. Just don’t expect too much.