DIR: Troy Nixey • WRI:  Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins • PRO: Mark Johnson, Guillermo del Toro • DOP: Oliver Stapleton • ED: Jill Bilcock • DES: Roger Ford • CAST: Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison

Over the last couple of years, Guillermo Del Toro’s name has become synonymous with atmospheric horror, having presented us with modern Spanish horror classics like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Orphanage. This year he lends his title, and his pen to Hollywood horror with Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.

A young father (Guy Pierce) moves into an inevitably creepy old home with his daughter and new girlfriend. Pierce plays the distracted father role excellently; everything that needs to be said is done so in silence. It has been a while since Katie Holmes has appeared on our screens and here she makes an unexpected move into the horror genre. She is effortlessly believable as the young woman caught up in a new life and unsure in her new maternal role.

Bailee Madison excels as 10 year old Sally, curious and mildly lonesome; she immediately draws the audience into her world. Madison has a fierceness rarely seen in young actresses, and she looks set to be the next big (or small) thing. This movie hinges on Sally’s experience, we are thrust into her world and forced to see everything from her perspective. We are adults in a Montessori where nothing quite fits us, which adds a level of tension to the entire piece.

From the outset this movie sets itself out as being the typical ‘haunted house’ movie. There is nothing more likely to awaken the frightened child within us than the haunted house movie. Our homes are often where we feel safe, and it’s long been a common theme in horror to upset that balance. The new house is at once imposing and frightening, the type of house that makes us squeal internally. The wonderful thing here is the creator’s willingness to adapt generic staples.

The most refreshing generic change here is, for me, the basement. The basement area, along with the attic is a horror favourite, drawing from the notion of the Unheimlich. These areas are traditionally not lived in, and, as such, present a threat to the other areas of the house and their inhabitants. The difference in this movie is that the basement area was clearly once very much lived in, maybe even comfortable. It doesn’t have that immediately eerie atmosphere of the unlived space. Somehow the idea that the basement was once a lived space makes the hair stand on end as it is unexpected, and infuses the area with a life of its own.

Unfortunately this narrative falls flat towards the end, when we come face to face with the source of our fears. As the incomparable Stephen King says: ‘Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.’ What scares the audience most is the unknown. This fear mounts throughout the movie, but dies a swift death when we view our scampering CGI aggressors. Had this film stayed atmospheric and not ventured into over-explanations, we might have had a near-perfect horror movie on our hands.

The climax is mildly disappointing, but there is enough atmosphere here to allow us to be thrust completely into the narrative. It may skim perfection, but it’s the closest that horror has gotten for a very long time. Guillermo Del Toro brings his special brand of atmosphere to the Hollywood stage, and proves that he is indeed the master of the genre. For a horror fan like myself, this was a refreshing change from the recent onslaught of ridiculousness.

Ciara O’Brien

Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is released on 30th September 2011

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark – Official Website


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