100 min., rated R.
Grade: C +
Remaking the 1973 made-for-TV movie by the same name, "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" has been finished for two years now, while it sat in distribution limbo. It's being marketed as another "Guillermo del Toro presents" film, like 2008's elegantly creepy "The Orphanage," where he had a mere producing credit. But this time, del Toro has produced and written the remodeled gothic horror tale that scared the daylights out of him when he was just a kid. It being 2011, this rejiggering of the 1973 telefilm does renovate the creaks of its predecessor—the 10-inch-tall creatures are computer-generated rather than live actors lurking around corners on giant sets—but again it's 2011, so everything feels spookily familiar.
There is only so much you can tell a nuclear family about their new scary estate without plainly saying, "For God's sake, get out of Dodge!" Bleeding walls and a bloody history weren't deal-breakers for the Lutz fam's colonial-style home in "The Amityville Horror." At least the family in this year's "Insidious" were smart enough to leave when they thought it was their Craftsman being spooked. As Eddie Murphy once joked in his stand-up, "Why don't white people just leave when there's a ghost in the house?" In "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," there is, in fact, something to be afraid of in the dark of an old, cold Victorian mansion that only Stephen King or Casper would happily occupy.
The prologue at the foreboding Blackwood Manor, set back in the 1800s with gas lamps and horse-drawn carriages, gets off to a deliciously nasty shock; the wildlife artist owner attacks his unsuspecting maid and offers up her teeth to the insidious spirits whispering through the fireplace. (Perhaps they're "Darkness Fall's" The Tooth Fairy's little helpers?) Now in the present-day, morose and medicated Sally (Bailee Madison) gets shipped off by her neglectful L.A. mother to live with her architect father, Alex (Guy Pearce), in Rhode Island. Dad and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes), an interior designer, are in the process of restoring the fixer-upper. After Sally does a little exploring in the once-sealed-up basement, she hears whispering and banshee-screaming coming from the bolted-shut ash pit ("Salllllly! Let's play!"). The longtime caretaker Harris (Jack Thompson) offers up warning and keeps reiterating that "this place isn't safe for a child!" Sooner or later, Sally realizes her new "friends" aren't so nice, especially when she shines a light on them, but misery loves company!
For a movie called "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" about fearing the dark, the fear factor never rises above a faint hum. Comic book artist-turned-director Troy Nixey puts forth a freshman effort, steeping his film in dread and gothic atmosphere with slow-burn pacing. Oliver Stapleton's cinematography isn't glossy but classically elegant and weighty. The production is a sophisticatedly old-fashioned one, but the scares are pretty derivative. Nixey understands, at least for the first quarter, that it's scarier to not see what's lurking in the darkness, in this case being the ghoulies. Though creepy when kept in the dark, jumping out for a "boo!" scare, and shown scurrying around in an army, too many clear glimpses of the gremlin-like fairies (that take a page from del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth") suck out their frightfulness. They're more threatening than a Furby but still more than a little goofy. A disturbing mural in the Blackwood basement and Sally's crayon drawings of the creatures are more frightening than anything.
R-rated but more pervasively spooky than gory, "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" refreshingly shows no compromise for one character's sinister fate. Del Toro and Matthew Robbins' screenplay (based on Nigel McKeand's source material) becomes a dark Brothers Grimm fairy tale from a little girl's point-of-view, à la "Pan's Labyrinth," but suffers from a few glaring inconsistencies. When Sally's bath time is interrupted to a light's-out and some razor play, she could have easily hit the switch when she tries the door knob. Or, during Alex's Architectural Digest party when Sally gets locked into the house's study, she fights back with the beasties, taking off one of the critter's arms. Why not use the arm as evidence to prove she's not a girl who cried wolf? It also takes about four fake endings before Alex actually believes his daughter and why must characters always journey to the library to learn about their haunted house? Mrs. Tom Cruise gets to do the research this time.
Madison could be the next Dakota Fanning; here, she nails Sally's inner gloom and fear. Pearce gets the raw end of the deal as The Disbelieving Father, but Holmes registers more persuasively as Kim, trying with all her might to make nice with Sally as a potential stepmother and being the first to believe her. "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" won't quite make you afraid of the dark, but it might send a chill up your spine every fifteen minutes or so.