No, no. They got the title all wrong. They should’ve knocked off the first word. This remade and rethought version of the truly creepy 1973 made-for- TV classic Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is one of those things-that-go-bump-in-the-dark movies. But even though they’d prefer not to, these things — vicious little hunchbacked rat-monkey creatures — do come out of the dark. And when they do, you’d rather be elsewhere, ’cause they’re interested in more than bumping.
A prologue introduces us to a big spooky mansion, long ago, where old Mr. Blackwood is holed up in the basement in need, we’re told, of teeth, which are to be traded to whatever is living behind a grate, way down deep in an ash pit, in return for his son. Much nasty mayhem ensues.
Present day, same house, new occupants. Architect fiancées Alex and Kim (Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes) have moved in with plans of renovating, winning design awards, then selling the place for a huge profit. But first there’s some family drama. Alex’s 10-year-old daughter, Sally (Bailee Madison), is moving in with them, against her will, because her mom has better things to do than raise a kid.
“My mom gave me to my dad,” says the little girl to Kim soon after they meet. Sad Sally makes some new friends in the house, though — or at least lots of voices whispering her name through that creepy grate, and not really sounding all that friendly.
First-time director Troy Nixey dishes up a good old-fashioned haunted house scarefest. But the film has the marks of its producer and co-writer Guillermo del Toro all over it: a mixed-up kid, below-ground chambers, dark rooms, weird noises and hideous creatures. There’s no doubt del Toro’s hands were in this one up to his elbows. For further reference, check out the wonderfully bizarre Pan’s Labyrinth, which he directed in 2006.
This is also a story where the busy adults are oblivious to any strangeness going on all around them (another del Toro hallmark). The renovation is a make-or-break career situation for Alex, who’s putting everything on the line for a shot at the cover of Architectural Digest. So when he hears Sally moaning and groaning and — after she sees what her “friends” look like, screaming — he writes it off to her being lonely and to the attention-deficit drugs she’s been on.
Entering the realm of Stephen Kingdom, there’s personal strife to spare. Alex and Sally have their troubles, as do Alex and Kim when the tension builds, as do Sally and Kim (Sally would rather be with her real mom), as do Alex and his ex-wife (who we only get to hear during phone conversations).
One doesn’t generally look for any kind of special acting in the horror genre, and it appears that both Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes feel the same way. But Bailee Madison, who has done lots of small TV and film parts, really steps up to the plate here, with an intense, emotional presentation of a character who’s really being put through the wringer. Hell, they even have her doing a downright scary bathtub scene, with the spindly, glowing-eyed creatures, some of them carrying sharp objects, scurrying after her.
The joy of watching a movie like this is that everyone there with you is able to take part in a sort of communal fit of nervous giggles. But remember, no matter how much fun you’re having, this is a horror film. And, to its credit, this one doesn’t lose its nerve by slapping on a happy Spielberg ending.