Don't Be Afraid of the Dark stars Guy Pearce as Alex and Katie Holmes as his young partner, Kim. They are busy moving in and decorating a large gothic mansion in Providence, Rhode Island. H.P.Lovecraft, whose short story 'The Rats in the Walls' apparently inspired this plotline, lived in Providence himself (a nice nod in the right direction), although the short story he wrote was actually set in England.
This is a remake of a 1973 TV movie. In the original, the couple moving in to the mansion, inherit the place, only to find creepy gremlins living in the basement. Much the same thing happens here, although there are updates - Alex and Kim are upwardly mobile interior designers, and they are joined by Alex's young daughter, Sally, played by Bailee Madison. She's pretty fabulous in this movie too, never coming across as mawkish or overly cute, but matter of fact with the madness, and later suitably terrified, when the creatures living below the house come out to play. She reacts, as you would expect a girl that age to react. Young Bailee Madison has a whole handful of movies set for imminent release or currently in production, so watch her name closely.
With their daughter pretty much dumped on them by Alex's ex-wife, poor dad has to cope with trying to persuade the young girl that she is wanted, it's just that her mum, well - has found other things to do other than being a full-time mum. Hey, no wonder she's screwed up - maybe the creatures she spies in the basement are a manifestation of the turmoil in her young mind. Or maybe they really are demonic little bastards from Hell. You decide!I rather liked the developing relationship between Sally and Kim, who has to become an instant mum. It's a relationship that isn't turned too soppy, but stays pretty authentic. A good relationship develops. Towards the end of the film, Kim convincingly puts her life on the line for the young girl she has come to protect and love.
Strange things start happening around the house, following a suitably gory opener to the movie that sees the original owner, a painter, sucked into the depths below the basement (despite committing a devilous deed in the search for his own lost children) straight through a fire grill that the little creatures live behind. The creatures come back for more with the new owners now firmly in place. They want, especially - the little girl.
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark has good horror pedigree, firstly because it has a link to Lovecraft and secondly because the screenplay was co-written by Guillermo del Toro who directed such horror greats as Cronos (1993) and Pan's Labyrinth (2006). As you'd expect, the film has a suitably dark and gothic, fantastical feel. The direction, by former comic book artist Troy Nixey, is good, utilising the minimal but effectively broody sets and lighting - a Lovecraftian and ancient kind of old parchment-tinged lighting at times, when not in the bright glare of modern day light bulbs and newly-fitted bathrooms - very well. The best kind of horror is that where ancient magic mixes with the mundane and the modern.
The creatures themselves are fairly menacing if a little too cute at times, though they are suitably demonic and steeped in legend and dabbling in the runes of the Elder Futhark (yes, I had to look that up too!). The little devils are also very vicious indeed - they make mincemeat of the poor caretaker and at least one major cast member faces a rather shocking fate towards the end of the movie that literally sucks. It's astounding - a shocking ending that sticks in the head weeks after watching. I'm guessing it stays with you for life, it's so unexpected. I won't say what happens, whether the person survives or ends up with a worse kind of fate, but the threat is fantastic but also feels very real. It's a great horror moment in a really rather fabulous horror film. Another great scene has the young girl Sally circled in the bath by the unseen but soon to be seen, little creeps - Hitchcock's shower scene but at bathtime, where Mr Matey suddenly turns all demonic and whispery. You will - I promise - shiver with glee when the little monsters show their, rather horrible, cackly little faces. You may not ever want to get in the bath or hide under the bed again..or even go down to a basement alone.
If there's a criticism to be had, it's that the movie feels like a short story. It's like an especially good episode of The Twilight Zone, the kind of episode where a monster walks free in suburbia or a demonic creature sits on the wing of a plane - not such a bad comparison to have earned. But, in a era of horror movie-making that sees complex death traps in the Saw franchise and clever teenage conundrums of the Final Destination variety dominate the genre, it's refreshing to have horror that keeps it simple: an old creepy house with a basement; long shadows and unseen horrors in the dark; a cast suitably menaced - and a bloody good nightmarish ending that doesn't cry out for, or furrow the soil for, a sequel. The film reminds me of the wonderful days of golden era Hammer Horror where Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee - or sometimes both - would battle one of the odder kind of movie monsters around: a Death's-head Moth Woman or a reanimated skeleton from Papua New Guinea perhaps - neither much of a giant stride away from demonic little buggers in the fireplace.
Guy Pearce is solid in the role of the protective dad, but Katie Holmes really shines in her turn as the easy-going young girlfriend who suddenly has to become an instant mum. Whether wearing tight-fitting knitted tops with little support underneath that make you kind of want to cuddle up against her and escape the horrors of the house with in the same way you might hug a comfort blanket to death (ok -maybe just me thinking this!) or whether looking doe-eyed, with a take-no-bullshit stoical stare at the weird unnatural threat to her new family, she never comes across as overly cute or mumsy - just gets on with the job. Katie really kicks ass in this one, especially at the end of the movie. I didn't think Katie Holmes could do that. I think she will surprise many who still see her as 'that girl from Dawson's Creek' or worse - 'Mrs Tom Cruise'. If anything, this role kicks that old lazy media tag right down into the depths of bloody Hell.One thing though that did make me smile a little - young Sally, the daughter, at times looks a little older than Katie Holmes's character of Kim, her new found stepmum (what vitamin is Katie Holmes on?) and the two also look incredibly, weirdly alike; the fictional adopted daughter here could well be an older double for Katie's real life daughter. It's all a bit creepy really, more so than the little buggers in the movie that bite, jab, cut and hack back at any resident that dares live with them. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a film that you daren't dare say anything but wonderful things about - just in case the little monsters that live behind the fireplace take offence. I don't want to be sucked into Hell. I just want to be saved by Katie Holmes.
words: mark gordon palmer