(by Dustin Putman
A splash of 1987's "Dolls" here and a dash of 2003's "Darkness Falls" there, "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" pits a troubled nuclear family staying in a looming, secluded gothic mansion against ancient, vicious little creatures who don't take kindly to strangers—especially ones with children. A remake of the famously spooky 1973 television pic by Nigel McKeand, the film, produced and written by Guillermo Del Toro (2008's "Hellboy II: The Golden Army") and co-written by Matthew Robbins (1997's "Mimic"), provides an ideal setup for a creepy-crawly horror movie in the classic vein. Appreciably R-rated but never terribly gory, the scare factor mostly comes from the sound of malevolent whispers and the anticipation of who—or what—is lurking in the shadows and amongst the house's cobwebbed antiques. First-time director Troy Nixey gets all of this right, and also introduces a lonely, resourceful, inquisitive, and altogether sympathetic child protagonist in 9-year-old Sally (Bailee Madison). With a slim story, however, the 100-minute running time verges on padded as the characters, despite knowing they are in grave danger, wander too long around the dank, foreboding corridors of the property as, usually, lightning flashes and thunder rumbles outside. Article continues below
When her mom ships her off to stay with dad Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new interior decorator girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) as they renovate a historic Rhode Island piece of real estate, little Sally feels sullen and dejected. All she needs is a friend, and when a secret basement is found hidden in the wall behind the staircase her curiosity gets the best of her. She hears voices calling her name from the bolted-up fire pit, telling her they want to be set free so they can play with her. When Sally acquiesces, it doesn't take long for her to discover these centuries-old fairies are not exactly made of sugar and spice. Obsessed with claiming children's teeth and taking lives to replenish their souls, these ghouls' latest target is Sally, and anyone else who gets in their way. With Alex not taking his daughter's urgent fantastical claims seriously, it is Kim who notices the genuine fear inside Sally. The more she begins to research the sordid history of the house and its former inhabitant, the ill-fated Emerson Blackwood, the more Kim realizes none of them are safe as long as Sally stays in the house.
"Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" picks up where the worthy companion book "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark: Blackwood's Guide to Dangerous Fairies" by Del Toro, Nixey and Christopher Golden leaves off, with early 20th-century wildlife artist Blackwood (Garry McDonald) committing a horrific crime against his unsuspecting maid in a desperate last-ditch effort to save his 8-year-old son, stolen in the night by the so-called Toothbreakers. It's quite a bang of a start, and expertly matches the dour yet fun tone that follows. Before the nasty demons even pop up, the film positions itself as a human drama, one interested in Sally as she tries to find her place in a world she is already learning is pretty unfair at times. Her feelings of solitude and her natural curiosity, exhibited in a scene of apprehension and whimsy where she makes a discovery beyond the thick bushes in a backyard maze, is nicely set up so as to better explain why she is so eager to meet the voices that call her name from the ventilation grates in her bedroom. As they are later unleashed, the deadly little monsters' playful side is what particularly gets ones goosebumps showing. From puppeteering Sally's stuffed electronic bear to coming up with ingenious ways to flip off light switches and steal doorkeys, their added personality and human-like intelligence give them a more even, fascinating playing field. As with any li'l demon, though, there's bound to be a weakness, and these particular one's can't stand the light. Thank goodness Sally has a bunch of old Polaroid cameras at her disposal.
While enough time is dedicated to the touchy relationships between Sally, father Alex, and his girlfriend Kim, they are still rather workmanlike roles facing a common genre trajectory. The ill-at-ease father-daughter discord is a weak spot since Guy Pearce (2010's "The King's Speech") is asked to shoot down Sally's claims at every turn, and until it's almost too late. It is a predictable, if somewhat understandable, convention to feature a disbelieving character in this sort of film, but that doesn't make it less frustrating when all signs point to trouble and Alex is still being stubborn. Sally and Kim are more dynamic characters, and the work done by Bailee Madison (2011's "Just Go with It") and Katie Holmes (2008's "Mad Money") becomes all the more touching in hindsight of what occurs. Madison is adorably vulnerable but adamantly un-cutesy, and it's a treat to see Holmes, whose Kim hopes to be friends with Sally, once more sinking her teeth into a major studio role after several years laying low in mostly indie fare.
"Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" works best as a mood piece, the production design by Roger Ford (2003's "Peter Pan"), art direction by Lucinda Thomson (2009's "Where the Wild Things Are") and cinematography by Oliver Stapleton (2010's "Unstoppable") drenched in a Grimm fairy tales' mystique. Seeming like the real world off by a hair, the film knows atmosphere, and also knows how to cook up a big storm on cue during the drug-out finale where all could be solved if the clearly in-the-know characters got the heck out of Dodge a little quicker. As is, the decision to prolong Sally's endangerment by going through with a dinner party is more than a little convoluted, and the overabundance with which the creatures are glimpsed, especially in the second half, threatens to wear out their frightful novelty. The fate of a key character right at the end is both upsetting and misguided, particularly with a more plainly satisfying alternative staring the filmmakers in the face. All the same, "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" works its way under the skin with a sophistication not often seen anymore in today's horror pictures. It might be a tad naïve, but it's also elegant and suitably sinister where it counts.