The scariest monster in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark might be the MPAA; the ratings board has stuck the film with an R rating based on the fact that it has ‘violence and terror,’ mostly coming in the form of a little girl being menaced by little monsters. This rating is completely the wrong one for the film, which is a spooky and fun movie that is perfectly pitched at 10 year olds looking for nightmares. Anyone walking into Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark expecting a grown up truly R-rated movie will be completely disappointed.
But the film works as it is intended to, as a scary story for the younger set. Logic isn’t what the script, written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins, based on a 1973 TV movie, is going for. Rather the movie aims to create the sense that kids have when explaining their fears to adults, the sense that what terrifies you and is so obviously real gets endlessly brushed off as fantasy. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark isn’t about being hounded by monsters, it’s about being a kid and having no one take you seriously. So yes, there are moments of absolutely gaping logic - our young heroine smashes a monster to death but never bothers to show anybody its crushed remains, for instance, and so her distant father keeps thinking she’s just crazy - but they’re part of the film’s dreamy charm.
The biggest mistake the movie makes is revealing its creatures too early. The tiny homunculi are CG creations, which means they’ll never look as realistically menacing as even the phoniest practical creatures, and once they’re revealed much of their threat is gone. What’s interesting is that director Troy Nixey doesn’t seem to care about their menace; in the third act the monsters are mostly just absolute dicks, with a very Gremlins-esque emphasis on mischievous destruction. Again, this is part of the film’s inherent PG-13ishness, that the monsters aren’t necessarily looking to outright kill you but rather fuck with you up to the point of death. It’s a child’s POV of terror, something that isn’t outright obsessed with the existential finality of death but rather the million cuts of bullies, jerks and people who don’t understand you.
Nixey shows promise as a director, although del Toro’s fingerprints are all over the piece. Many of the scenes are gothically stylish, with some sweeping camera flourishes that are energetic fun. The opening sequence, a mini-prequel that goes back to the early 1900s, looks like it comes directly from a ‘Ghastly’ Graham Ingels illustrated story in Tales From the Crypt. The film does have some second act pacing problems, and they stem from the fact that the monsters are revealed way, way too early.
Katie Holmes is actually pretty great as the not-so-wicked stepmom. Guy Pearce has a hugely thankless role, playing a completely distant and dickish dad, a role that he actually seems ill-suited for. There’s just something nice about Pearce that makes his character’s continuing dismissiveness of his daughter’s plight super uncomfortable - but it works for the dynamics of the story. Bailee Madison, who plays the terrorized young girl is okay; it’s tough to critique the performance of a child actor, but I often got the feeling she was cast more for her looks than her chops. Madison seems to especially have a hard time acting opposite the non-existent monsters, making this another argument in favor of practical creatures.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a movie that straddles being a kid’s scarefest and something more adult; it’s that one foot on either side aspect that makes the film not completely successful. Ironically I think that del Toro’s much more realistically R-rated Pan’s Labyrinth is a more successful version of that exact same balancing act, perfectly juggling adult concepts and terrors with child logic and concerns.