So on Wednesday I went to see the not-particularly-successful movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, directed by Troy Nixey and produced and labelled by Guillermo del Toro. It’s received mixed to positive reviews, to be sure, but it’s done almost no business. And upon watching the movie I think it’s pretty easy to see why.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark tells the story of Sally (Bailee Madison), a young girl being sent from California to live with her father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) as they renovate an old gothic manor. Sally eventually finds that the manor is home to a secretive infestation of pixie-like creatures, evil beings who hide in darkness and try to befriend Sally for obviously nefarious ends.
It’s a fun riff on fairy tale stories, turning the concept of a tooth fairy into these small humanoid creatures who kidnap children to steal and eat their teeth, who abhor the light, and who abide by rules of deep magic that are never entirely clear. It plays with the same children-in-peril stuff as movies like Labyrinth or even Pan’s Labyrinth, though the latter movie’s incredible sense of oppression and suffering isn’t present here. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is half haunted house, half creature movie, but it’s decidedly whimsical fare, playing out more like an old, unsanitized version of a fairy tale than a straight up horror movie.
This extends to the movie itself. For a ‘modern’ horror movie, there’s almost no outright gore and nothing in the way of sexual content or even swearing. It’s a movie that plays out in its own pocket reality, made to feel dangerous and magical but not of the genre everyone has so far labelled it under.
And this is where the biggest problem of the movie comes in: its R rating. The movie was originally intended to be PG-13 and was shot to the rating. Unfortunately, the MPAA in its infinite idiocy, decided to rate it R for the nebulous idea of ‘pervasive scariness.’ The movie, which was already suffering by being a Miramax film during its collapse, went with the R rating instead of trying to recut the film. Del Toro is on record as saying “We asked them if there’s anything we could do, and they said, ‘Why ruin a perfectly scary movie?'”
I’ll tell you why–rating Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark an R ruined a perfectly decent movie. Subjectively scary or not, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark isn’t a movie for adult horror fiends who are desperate for new entries after a pretty dry year. It’s also not for the late teens set for whom R rated movies are a badge of honor because ‘man, that PG-13 shit is for kids.’ Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a movie for kids.
Not your 8-year-old set, to be sure, but for a young teen who has a taste for scary movies, it’s perfect. It has a decent amount of jump scares and it feels like a fairly legitimate genre entry without pandering to a younger set or pulling any of its punches. That’s stuff that kids almost instantly pick up on and reject, and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has the better sense to not try. It is a movie that should be seen by any kid with a taste for horror, much like I was at that age, whose parents maybe object to going to the usual heavier nonsense that finds its way into theaters. If I had seen the movie at 10 or 13 or anything like that, I would have loved it unconditionally. That is the audience.
Unfortunately, by getting an R rating there are rules about how you can market the movie. While del Toro decided to roll with it and take it as a badge of honor, that means you can’t run trailers before non-R rated films, typically, and you can’t market on shows aimed at kids. The people this movie was made for probably heard the least about it, and that seems to have followed through with its first week performance. It was a bad weekend for movies anyway with Irene blowing through the East coast, but it still made little in the way of impact.
It’s a shame, because it’s a good film, a movie that has a niche and people who would no doubt appreciate the hell out of it. But instead it’s probably doomed to obscurity, laid low by the illogic of the MPAA and the regulations of the FCC and the weird miasma that surrounds all by the most mass market of horror films. Maybe someday, when it’s showing on cable or streaming on Netflix, it will find its audience. It reminded me quite a bit of the movies I would stay up all night to watch on USA or HBO growing up, and I have a fondness for it borne almost solely out of that experience. I don’t know how valid that experience is for young movie fans today, but I hope it still exists in some way.
And if you have an interest in the genre, it’s a movie certainly worth taking another look at. It’s well made and has great atmosphere and genuinely interesting characters, even if it isn’t the scariest thing on the block. But with garbage fare like Apollo 18 and Shark Night 3D (both PG-13 films, by the way, for whatever reason) coming out today, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark remains the genre film to see in a theater if you’re going over the long weekend.