Here’s the thing: There’s no way that Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark could have been as good as I hoped it would be. I sort of hoped it would be the best movie ever. I mean, the haunted house genre might be my favorite genre, and you know what’s better than that? A house haunted by monsters. Add in del Toro’s name, the chance to see Troy Nixey’s directing chops, and the fact that it got an R rating for being too scary, and you’ve got expectations that cannot realistically be met.
So was it everything I’d hoped? No, not really. Was it everything I should’ve reasonably hoped? Yeah, or close enough. I liked it a lot, and, if I’d stumbled upon it without any expectations to weigh it down, if it’d been some surprise thing that I came across somehow without prior knowledge, I’d probably have loved it.
The first question of course is, “Was it really that scary?” And, no, I didn’t think so. Probably the most awful thing in the whole movie for me happens before the opening credits. But it was pretty creepy, and it definitely deserved its R-rating, and, honestly, I don’t see how it could’ve been rated anything else, not realistically, even though it’s a much more old school creepy dark house movie, rather than a gore film, and its body count is pretty much non-existent. It’s not that kind of movie.
It does have a lot in common with del Toro’s other films. (And he does love evil tooth fairies. This is the third time he’s used them, including a short story he did for the second Hellboy short story collection Odder Jobs, along with the same co-writer who worked with him on this movie.) Mainly, though, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a more straight-up horror movie than anything else del Toro’s ever done. As such, it’s probably a closer sibling to The Orphanage, which del Toro also produced, and while it’s not as good as The Orphanage it has the advantage of monsters.
And the monsters are pretty cool. They’re just spidery and awful enough, and the film does a good job of making them a credible threat, even though they’re so tiny.
The house was amazing, too. While it never quite felt like it was a character in the story, like it really came alive the way the best haunted houses sometimes do, it was beautifully designed, with wonderful carvings and doors and paintings, and some of that soft golden lighting that you see in the artwork from the film that really plays nicely against the dark and the shadows.
There’s really not much wrong with Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. It’s keeping it simple, it doesn’t have a lot of lofty goals, just wants to be a scary movie about an old, dark house full of awful little monsters. It does that.
The best part, though, about the whole experience for me. Better than the movie. Better, really, than the movie probably could have been, was that I got to sit in a theatre and watch a completely straight-faced, Hollywood horror movie make direct references to Blackwood and Machen. That’s the good stuff, right there.