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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 26, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 34
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Giddily suspenseful Dark nothing to be afraid of
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
Opening August 26


Sally (Bailee Madison) has been sent by her mother in California to live with her father, Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) on the other side of the country. He is currently renovating the Gothic mansion of a mysterious 19th-century artist, the home full of secrets neither the architect nor his staff have been able to fully decipher.

Sally doesn't want to be there. She doesn't trust Kim. She barely knows her father. She's not sure either of her parents care a bit about her welfare. What's more, the youngster is hearing voices - voices from a closed-off basement section of the house she inadvertently discovered, much to the chagrin of burly groundskeeper Harris (Jack Thompson).

What follows is a wonderful old-school Hammer-meets-classic-Universal-monster-movie fright flick, the likes of which studios don't have the guts to make anymore. Stuck in distributor limbo for more than a year, co-written and produced by Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth), the marvelous Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a whimsically unsettling charmer filled with wicked delights that had me tingling in suspenseful joy. Next to Attack the Block, this beautifully realized bit of H.P. Lovecraft-like nastiness might just be the most fun I've had sitting in a theater this entire summer.

A strong case could be made that the film is nothing more than a tasty bit of style over anything substantive, but when the style is this delicious, I honestly have to admit I don't particularly care. Roger Ford's production design is stellar; every nook, cranny, and crevice of the mansion is so intimately detailed you can almost smell the oak paneling and feel the dust covering the basement floor. Equally impressive is Oliver Stapleton's slithery camerawork, as the cinematographer delivered images that tickled my fantasies and assaulted my senses.

But the biggest assist goes to composers Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders and their elegantly refined score. Their operatic refrains add just the right touch, never overwhelming the images while helping to increase the tense atmosphere director Troy Nixey is going out of his way to create. As things progress, it becomes difficult to separate the music from the images, as both weave into each other with such intimate symmetry the filmmakers reach an operatic plateau reminiscent of Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator or David Cronenberg's version of The Fly.

Could the emotional dynamic going on between Sally and her father be stronger? Sure, that goes without saying, and while I get that the distance between them is somewhat the point, the fact that it takes Alex so long to put aside his personal ambitions and focus on his daughter's welfare is a little disconcerting. It should also be said that some portions play a bit too much like Critters, as the silliness factor is ramped up a bit more than is probably necessary when you consider the fairy-tale origins of the creatures making a play for Sally's teeth and bone.

Not that I particularly care. The acting is universally solid - especially, and somewhat surprisingly, on Holmes' part - while Nixey offers up so many shocks and moments of inspiration, the fact that the film is more suspenseful and thrilling than it is scary isn't a big problem. The director stages a few colorfully delirious set pieces, most notably a stunning one involving Sally in a darkened bathroom, while the closing sequences had the preview audience I was watching with shrieking out loud.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is slight - I won't argue that point - but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable. The picture is right up del Toro's alley, and it's easy to see why he was so interested in writing and producing it. What's more, it's great to see a picture that doesn't over-edit itself, doesn't spend so much time going around in circles with the volume turned all the way up, hoping to distract the audience with a bunch of sound and fury. The filmmakers have done themselves and the genre proud, and as soon as this one's out on Blu-ray, I'll be adding it to my personal library.








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