By Don Simpson | August 25, 2011
Director: Troy Nixey
Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins, Nigel McKeand (1973 teleplay)
Starring: Bailee Madison, Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Jack Thompson, Julia Blake
Sally (Bailee Madison) has been sent from Los Angeles by her mother (voiced by Abbe Holmes) to live with her architect father, Alex (Guy Pearce), and his interior-designer girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes), in a creepy Victorian mansion located somewhere in rural Rhode Island. Little do they know, their home — Blackwood Manor — is infested by ancient, beady-eyed, sharp-toothed vermin. The rat-like monsters (which are first introduced to us during the prologue) live in the basement ash pit; they have a penchant for eating children’s teeth; and they need to take a human life every so often. We are privy to a thirty second mythology lesson by a local librarian (James Mackay) about these creatures which is so fleeting and flimsy in its logic that it is not even worth getting into.
Sally is the first to meet the monsters. At first they try to lure her into the cellar by being friendly and playful; but after Sally witnesses their true nature, they aggressively begin to haunt and torment her. Alex refuses to listen to his daughter because of his Capitalist prioritization of financial investments and career (specifically getting his lavishly renovated house on the cover of Architectural Digest) over family; instead, psychiatric counseling and more medication — in addition to her current regiment of Aderrall — are prescribed to shush Sally.
Kim’s feelings towards Sally are significantly more complex — and the only truly developed aspect of Troy Nixey’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Fairly early in their relationship, Kim sees herself in Sally and she does not like the way Alex is handling Sally’s downward spiral of emotions. It does not take long for Kim to recognize what Sally really needs: a friend. So when Kim does pursue a friendship with Sally, it does not come off as a selfish means to ingratiate herself into Alex’s life. Kim befriends Sally in a showing of feminine solidarity and a rally against Alex’s Capitalist mindset. (The 1973 made-for-television movie of the same title — starring Kim Darby as a suburban housewife who is haunted by creatures in her basement — reveals an even stronger sense of female empowerment in the struggle for liberation and legitimacy.)
Kim eventually begins to believe Sally’s psychotic ramblings about monsters going bump in the night, so she lends Sally a Polaroid camera to scare off the creatures with its bright flashes. This camera also serves as a tool for Sally to record concrete evidence of the monsters, but no one — including Kim — cares enough to look at Sally’s photos. (The fully developed photos are never revealed to the audience.) The lack of interest increases tenfold when remnants of dead monsters are overlooked after various attacks. Harris (Jack Thompson) the caretaker is the only other living — yet psychologically unreliable — witness of the existence of the monsters. Are the creatures only a figment of mental instability or a side-effect of psychiatric medication? But, in that case, how would you explain the physical destruction the monsters unleash? It is very hard to believe this is all Sally’s doing.
Nonetheless, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark could very easily be interpreted as a propaganda piece about the horrors of psychiatric medication, especially when prescribed to young children. Is it a coincidence that Katie Holmes — the wife of arguably the best known member of the Church of Scientology, Tom Cruise — plays the only character in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark to see through the horrors of Aderrall? If anything, Holmes’ presence adds a lot of weight to this interpretation. That said — I am not saying that I am a proponent of medicating children with psychiatric drugs, but I am not against it either. I think there are strong arguments to both sides of this debate.
Co-written and produced by Guillermo del Toro, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark relies on CGI to staggeringly distracting proportions. I can almost guarantee that there is not one frame in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark that has not been doctored by digital effects. The fantastical falseness may add a Grimm’s Fairy Tales aesthetic to the narrative, but it also dilutes the horror by rendering the images less realistic. I find it difficult to be scared of something that I know is not real, especially when the monsters look as silly and scrawny as Nixey’s varmints.