I think there are three ways you can take DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK as material for a film. One way would obviously be to make it deliberate and celebratory B-movie schlock. However, if you are determined to make it into a more serious (or less trashy) film, I think you have two options available for it to work. One way would be to make it into a kid's Halloween movie, a scary but ultimately harmless film, á la GREMLINS. The other way would be to make it into a REPULSION-esque nightmare. Something with lots of scares, lots of blood, lots of death, and most importantly lots of blurring the line between fantasy/nightmare and reality.
The way Del Toro and Nixey have taken the film is somewhere in between the latter options, which is largely why it doesn't work or feels uneven. The film mostly feels like a Gothic/Halloween movie for kids (I know there's no Halloween involved, but it's color pallets strike this tone–it partly reminded me of the types of movies I would watch around Halloween as a kid). But it has a few scenes that make it too scary/disturbing for kids (the opening, the scene with the Caretaker, possibly the ending). So the film is balancing between two poles. It's too scary for kids and not scary for adults. I think the movie feels so disappointing because it was presented as a scary movie for adults. The film as it is should easily be PG-13 and with some edits it could even be PG (at least it could be in the 80s). I think this film would best work as a something geared towards kids. John, you mentioned GREMLINS as well, and I thought of that while watching the film. I think if the film had been presented and marketed as something akin to GREMLINS, I might not have been as disappointed.
Yes, there are things I like about the film. It seems old-fashioned, the sets are lovely, Madison is spunky, some of the scenes are quite entertaining as gothic set pieces, the creatures are kinda cool at times. But I suppose the problem is what we've already established–it's not scary at all, and as Jason humorously pointed out, it makes too many cliched lapses in judgment.
I'm shocked that the MPAA gave the film an R for pervasive scariness. Maybe it was bring your child to work day when the MPAA screened this because there is no way anyone over 13 would find this scary. Which is why it should have been a kids movie! Even if kids found it too scary now, they would remember it when they are older and look back upon it fondly and with nostalgia.
Jason, Chris, John- nice to read your thoughts. I guess we are all in a similar place with the film.
I used to be scared of everything as a kid. Now, like you John, I sense too much of the filmmakers in horror films and no longer find them scary.
Jason, have you seen TRICK R' TREAT? It's not a really scary film, but it's actually pretty fun.