Have you ever wondered what lore and legends might lay behind the idea of the tooth fairy? If so—and especially if you always suspected that the tooth fairy was a tad bit sinister—Don't Be Afraid of the Dark might be a movie for you. In this version, the tooth fairy isn't a singular, angelic being who gives children money in return for lost teeth; rather, it's an army of creepy crawly Gollum-like creatures who come out at night and prey on little children—and not just for their teeth.
To be sure, Dark is not a fairy tale for kids. It's a decidedly R-rated, scary fairy tale for grown-ups. Produced by Guillermo del Toro, Dark bears resemblance to the Mexican filmmaker's acclaimed 2006 film, Pan's Labyrinth, which also featured a child protagonist interacting with monsters and fairies from some imaginary underworld. But while Labyrinth managed an intelligent and layered picture not just of fantasy and thrill but also social and human commentary, Dark is mostly just a "gotcha!" horror film to make audiences squirm, jump, and feel afraid.
Helmed by first-time director Troy Nixey and based in part on a 1973 TV movie, Dark follows the frightful experiences of a family after they move in to a gothic-style 19th century mansion with plans to restore it. Things begin innocently enough for Alex (Guy Pearce), his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes), and Alex's young daughter Sally (Bailee Madison), but then things start going bump in the night. Sally has encounters with creatures who scurry around under her bed, her teddy bear is found beheaded, Kim's dresses are shredded by an unknown vandal, and one afternoon the mysterious groundskeeper (Jack Thompson) falls victim to knife-wielding beasts in the newly discovered creepy basement.
But in spite of the hard-to-miss ghoulish character of the clearly cursed abode, homeowners Alex and Kim (aka the out-of-touch adults) go about their business as if normal. They disregard little Sally's repeated reports about the creatures she has seen and heard, and they blame her midnight screams on nightmares and anxiety. At one point a shrink is brought in to help the clearly confused girl. By the time the adults finally begin to take Sally at her word—after seeing the monsters with their own eyes—it's almost too late. The film climaxes in an unabashedly stereotypical manner: The night is stormy, the power is cut so the house is dark, violence escalates as the monsters get more ruthless, and not all main characters emerge alive.
Dark is a throwback horror film of a variety we haven't seen much of in the gruesome era of Saw, Hostel, and Final Destination. It relies less on elaborate ways to construct deathtraps than on classic scare-tactic tropes: tension-building Hitchcockian point-of-view shots, subtle shifts in light and sound, walking down stairs in the dark alone, a bathtub scene, lightning outside the windows, and so on. In this sort of nostalgic-for-old-timey-horror-films manner, the film is successful. It does provide thrills and plenty of tension. But is there much story to speak of? And do we care for the characters?
Here's where the film falls a bit short. Though the "twisted tooth fairy" premise has some intriguing aspects to it, the film leaves more questions unanswered than it should. Why are these creatures seemingly confined to the inner depths of this one house? Why do they so desire children? What do teeth have to do with anything? What exactly are these fiendish monsters and why can they only live in the dark?
Certainly the film intentionally leaves some of these questions unanswered. We experience the mysteries of the house just as the residents do—with no back-story or contextual understanding of what we are seeing and hearing. But at least by the end we have the right to know something about what we've just seen. Instead we get a cryptic final mini-twist that leaves us asking even more questions. In the age of The Sixth Sense and other "everything makes sense now that we've gotten to the ending" brain-teasers, audiences demand more than just open-ended ghost stories.
Then there is the question of caring for the characters. Young Sally is the chief protagonist of the film—much of it is told from her point of view as she explores the house and fights off her inhuman assailants—and so of all the characters, we should care for her. But while Bailee Madison is cute and believable as a slightly angsty elementary schoolgirl, she doesn't exude enough charisma or innocence to make us truly care. Madison has a gratingly over-expressive, "I'm a child actress!" style of acting, and it feels overbearing at times (see also her work in Brothers). Furthermore, how are we to care for a child who willingly ventures—out of insatiable curiosity—into the basement and unlocks the vaults from which the monsters emerge? She's as much to blame for the chaos as she is a victim of it.
Meanwhile, the adults in the film are supremely bland. Their attempt to placate Sally and her childish fairy stories in the beginning is one thing. Their inane refusal to jump in the car and flee while they have the chance in the final act is quite another. If one of the themes of the film is that children are innately curious and willing to believe the incredulous and supernatural before their adult counterparts, another theme is that adults are just silly and probably asking for a sordid end at the bloodthirsty hands of mysterious fairy-goblins.
In the end, Dark has little of substance to offer aside from a flimsy attempt at exploring family dynamics and the alienation that might lead a child to want to befriend malevolent creatures of the shadows. There's a lot more territory here that could have been mined but wasn't, which is a shame. But for those just looking to be scared the old fashioned way in a movie theater, Dark certainly delivers.Discussion starters
- What do Kim and Alex do wrong in their parenting of Sally over the course of the film? What do they do right?
- What would lead Sally to be so fearless and curious to get to know the monsters calling her name from the basement?
- What lessons does the film have for families in terms of communication?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Don't be Afraid of the Dark is rated R for violence and terror. It's about a child, but it's not a film for children; it's a fairy-tale for grown-ups. The worst of the violence happens in the opening scene (including the splitting open of a woman's head with a chisel) and in a sequence where an army of creatures attack a man with razors, box-cutters, and other sharp objects. There is also a pervasive feeling of terror and "I don't want to look!" intensity which makes it a film unsuitable for younger viewers as well as squeamish adults.
Photos © FilmDistrict
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.