With his debut feature film Troy Nixey has proven one thing with DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK - he knows how to orchestrate the slow build. This movie is in no hurry to diffuse any tension; from the first scene to the final, haunting voiceover, Nixey tightens the screws ever so slightly, and before the audience realizes it they're cowering under the seats. But that slow build comes at a price. There are stretches of the film that you want to take some of the characters and give them a good shake, especially Guy Pearce's father character, who seems oblivious to the entities terrorizing his daughter Sally (Bailee Madison).
These entities are Troy Nixey's great achievement in DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK. Not only are they effectively scary, you actively root against them quickly. No sympathy for the monster here, except in a vague way when their origins are revealed towards the end; these little creatures are truly evil and have no redeeming qualities. They live deep within the Blackwood house, a house that Alex (Pearce) and Kim (Katie Holmes) are trying to restore so they can sell and make a profit and perhaps get out of debt. Alex brings Sally along after her Hollywood mother dumps her on him. He genuinely loves Sally but doesn't know her very well, and in these strange surroundings Sally comes to face the strange creatures that seem to live between the walls of Blackwood Manor. Only the caretaker (Jack Thompson) seems to understand what's going on, but he meets with a mysterious accident. Once the creatures are released from the cellar, they haunt Sally with a fierce determination. No one believes her, but Kim begins to sense the strange happenings occurring in the house aren't simply from Sally's vivid imagination.
DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is rated R, but it shouldn't have been. It's the lightest R imaginable, and while there are definitely scary moments and some disturbing imagery, I doubt anyone older than 12 would be overly traumatized by the film. But the film is strongest when we see the terrible things that are happening through Sally's eyes. Her fear is palpable and we fear along with her. Bailee Madison's performance is very good; she is relatable, precocious, and funny, but we empathize with her as well when things start to go bad. She plays a sad child trying to figure out her place in her father's life, and this new woman isn't helping matters either. As Sally and Kim slowly bond, the creatures become more overt in their manner and it becomes obvious that they want Sally to join them. Kim becomes protective of Sally and their relationship feels genuine in the film.
The fears of a child are not complex, in comparison to the fears of adults. In the film Alex and Kim sweat over finances, whether or not they'll be able to pull off the restoration and get money out of the deal; they are afraid for Sally's well-being and are unsure whether her terrors are simply psychological. But Sally knows the truth. There are monsters, and they want to take her away. Nixey is very adept at giving us that point of view so that Sally's fears become our fears. It also helps that the creature design is so well done - the creatures are pale white and wrinkly, and they aren't playful in their behavior like many other monsters of this type - they mean to hurt you. The film plays like a child's fever-dream and is fairly relentless in building the stakes. The script, by Guillermo Del Toro and Matthew Robbins, hits all the right and creepy marks, especially in an opening sequence that had the audience cringing. Del Toro knows how to do this kind of thing in his sleep, and without spoiling the ending, let's just say that it definitely feels like something he came up with.
If there's anything negative to say about the film it's that the slow burn of the tension in the film may not be enough for more attention-addled audience members. There are moments in the middle that drag, especially once it's established that Sally is under serious threat. Her frustration that no one believes her becomes the audience's as well. Although the movie isn't slow, it's in no hurry to get to where it wants to go either. Also, the film suffers from most films like this in that most of us in that situation would have left much more quickly. But the fun of the film is watching these creatures wreak havoc with the people in the house and there are some genuinely thrilling and scary moments. It's what you don't see that is also terrifying, and Nixey, like many great horror directors before him, understands that it's what fills the inner theater of the audience's mind that truly frightens. It's all about the creaking floorboard, the furtive shadow moving across the room, and in that aspect, Nixey excels. As far as first films go, DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is a hell of an achievement for Troy Nixey, who has a great eye and wrings as much suspense as he can out of the premise. Good scares have been rare this summer, and for the most part, DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK delivers.