“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” falls victim to every cliché in the horror movie repertoire.
There’s a creepy house with a hidden past, a troubled and precocious little girl who doesn’t fit in, an evil stepmother, and of course, a crotchety gardener who knows all the secrets.
The movie begins with Sally (Bailee Madison) moving to live with her father (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes) at a Rhode Island estate they’re renovating. Soon after, Sally becomes intrigued and then haunted by creatures in the house’s dormant furnace.
Just about anyone can mostly predict how it goes from there.
But audiences expect more than the routine from writer and producer Guillermo del Toro. His visually stunning beasts and landscapes in films like “Pan’s Labyrinth” captivated audiences while building the magic of the plot.
Each new creature and scene in that film added to the overall wonder and intrigue of what would happen next.
In “Don’t Be Afraid,” the best scares and even the identity of the creatures are given away in the trailer, which loosens the tension. The best scary movies offer glimpses of unseen forces and creatures while waiting most of the runtime to reveal them—this movie let them out before viewers ever paid the ticket price.
There are a few cringe-inducing moments that are done well, especially some involving teeth that made most audience members squirm. There also is a flicker of hope for what the movie could have been in scenes where Sally is left alone with the creatures.
Pearce’s role as the stern father who’s convinced his daughter is just having trouble adjusting is another cliché that he can’t act his way out of. Madison and Holmes are fine, making their characters sympathetic and believable, but neither of their performances rises above the hackneyed plot.
The set up of “Don’t Be Afraid” should have allowed del Toro and director Troy Nixey to craft some good scares and memorable images. While the special effects are seamless, the inspiration behind them is lacking.
The ending leaves room for a strong conclusion, but the final twist elicits groans instead of gasps. Like the rest of the movie, it comes off as an attempt to get away from the horror movie norm that doesn’t hit the mark.