As my colleague Corey Hall likes to point out, most horror films set in today's world are, by their very nature, pretty silly. They require cell phones to die or get no reception, automobiles to break down, friends and family to ignore the strange deaths or injuries of those around them, panicked warnings to fall on deaf ears, and victims to remain against all logic in close proximity to the thing most likely to kill them. Eddie Murphy used to joke that if black people moved into the house in The Amityville Horror there would've been no movie. The ghost would have said, "Get out!" and the couple would have left.
Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark falls victim to many of those aforementioned contrivances. But that doesn't mean it isn't creepy. Lushly appointed by first-time director Troy Nixey (a comic book artist), it takes an old-fashioned approach to mood and atmosphere, slowly building tension and tightening the screws before letting loose the CGI heebee-jeebies.
Nine-year-old Sally (Bailee Madison) is shipped by her mother to the gothic Rhode Island mansion her architect dad (Guy Pearce) is restoring. Sad and neglected, she's also not too keen on pop's interior decorator girlfriend (Katie Holmes). But there are whispery voices in the furnace vents that tell her they want to be her friend, if only she would unbolt the ash pit in the basement. Before you can shout, "Put down that wrench!" Sally has released the beady-eyed, freakishly rat-like creatures inside, which, unfortunately, feed on the teeth and bones of dead children. Oops. Worse, once the little demons start taunting and attacking Sally, no one will believe her. After all, she's got a vivid imagination and Mom's got her hooked on Adderall. Enter the ineffectual shrink. There's a caretaker (Jack Thompson) who knows what's going on but doesn't speak up and quickly becomes the victim of a bizarre and bloody attack. Only Holmes begins to sense that something nefarious is up at Blackwood Manor, but her interest comes just a bit too late.
Producer and co-writer Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth) says the 1973 TV-movie Don't Be Afraid of the Dark scared the bejesus out of him as a child (it scared the hell out of me too), and he was inspired to adapt and update it for the big screen. The translation, however, is a mixed bag. The plot plays like a humorless remix of Coraline and Gremlins, with the predictable human interactions dragging the story down. The usually dependable Guy Pearce makes for an exceptionally boring dad, and Holmes is only marginally more engaged. Once it's obvious that Sally is in danger, her frustrations that no one will believe her become ours as well. Too often the script needlessly draws things out, turning the adults into idiots and suspense into annoyance. Evidence gets ignored (wouldn't the severed monster leg alert Pop that something's afoot) and even the hospitalized handyman refuses to come to validate Sally's claims. Instead, he sends Holmes to the library to find the truth. There are hints that Sally has a perseverance her parents lack, but nothing meaningful comes of it. The movie can't decide if she's a frightened but capable little girl or terrified victim.
Nixey's film is on surer footing when he sticks to Sally and her fight against the beasties. Hiding under bed, assaulting her in the bathtub, scurrying through the vents, the homunculi are nasty little bastards that send chills down your spine (although Nixey would've done well to show them a little less). Making good use of the mansion's shadowed rooms and establishing an arty moodiness, he elicits enough scares to satisfy most audiences.
Still, with Don't Be Afraid of the Dark's R-rating, it may struggle to attract the kind of box office the studio hopes for. A needlessly gruesome opening and a bloody basement assault probably tipped things away from its natural teenage audience into the laps of older, less horror-friendly viewers. And doesn't it defeat del Toro's desire to remake the movie that haunted his childhood if only adults are permitted to see it?