As you may already know, that modern master of Grand Guignol, Guillermo del Toro, saw the 1973 TV movie Don’t be Afraid of the Dark when he was a boy, and it scared the daylights out of him. He’s wanted to remake it ever since, and wrote a script with Matthew Robbins around the time he made his first American feature, Mimic (1997). Years went by, and when the pieces finally fell in place to put it into production he was busy with The Hobbit, so he selected newcomer Troy Nixey to fill his shoes after seeing an impressive short-subject he made. (The picture was finished two years ago but went into distributor limbo, from which it has just emerged, thanks to the newly-formed FilmDistrict.)
The results are definitely creepy, but less than perfect, because the story is built on—
—an all-too-familiar foundation that can be summed up in six words: get out of that damned house!
Young Bailee Madison, who’s neurotic, overmedicated, and feels unloved, is sent to live with her divorced father, Guy Pearce. He’s renovating a spooky old mansion with his girlfriend, Katie Holmes. As we (but they don’t) learn in a prologue, the house has a terrible history. It doesn’t take long for the little girl to hear strange voices, calling to her from a boarded-up basement, behind a furnace vent. The voices belong to monstrous little creatures who mean to overtake her as their latest “friend.”
The key decision in a film like this is how soon to reveal the monsters, and how clearly to show them. Usually the more you see them the less terrifying they get to be, although these rodent-like creatures remain pretty fearsome. But once the movie shows its hand and we know what we’re dealing with, the unexplainable actions of the two adults, who don’t respond as they should, and the victimization of the little girl become formulaic and the film loses much of its impetus.
Don’t be Afraid of the Dark knows it’s following a well-worn path and doesn’t shirk from it (the great Jack Thompson plays a caretaker who’s keeping secrets); that’s intended to be part of the fun. As a traditional genre piece, it’s not bad, and those creatures are vividly repulsive. If that’s enough to satisfy you, you’ll get what you came for.