“Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark,” a remake of a made-for-TV movie from the early 1970s, has a lot of first-rate things working in its favor, which is why it pains me to say that the film taken as a whole does not live up to the sum of its parts. It has a reliable cast giving commendable performances, a beautifully grim and foreboding central setpiece of a ghastly mansion and the atmosphere of a stirring haunted house flick. These are the kind of touches that would make a good movie great, but in this case are kind of like the ingredients for making rich, creamy and delicious frosting that will coat an otherwise average cake.
The film stars 11-year-old actress Bailee Madison as Sally, a troubled girl raised in a problematic family environment. Her divorced mother sends her to live with her father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend/interior designer Kim (Katie Holmes) at their newly acquired property of Blackwood Manor. This weathered residence once belonged to Emerson Blackwood, a revered artist famous for his realism. What nobody else knows is that he started drawing strange and frightening sketches in his later years and soon after disappeared from the face of the earth. A brief preamble explains his descent into madness, which involves him dealing with some mysterious basement monsters (more on that in a little bit) to save his kidnapped son.
Upon arrival, the girl cannot help but weasel her way into danger. She uncovers a closed-off basement area while exploring the property and begins hearing hushed voices coming from the crevices of a miniature fireplace that has been bolted shut. With empty promises of friendship from the cellar’s inhabitants, Sally unscrews the sealed compartment and in turn unleashes some grotesque little pests into the house that thrive in complete darkness and cause terror for Sally only at the most inopportune moments. And just in time for Alex’s big pitch to sell the house for more money and when his suspicions for his child’s mental health have reached their zenith. Just perfect.
Now I don’t know how film savvy my average reader is, but I will always remember Bailee Madison’s understated but no-less-smashing performance as the oldest daughter in the 2009 American remake “Brothers,” which also situated her in the middle of some turbulent family affairs. Madison proves she can also sell herself at one moment as an introverted, disagreeable type of kid and in another as a terrified little girl consumed with fear, somewhere in the same vein as Carol Anne from “Poltergeist.” In fact, I can see this girl growing up to be a big star later down the line, given her wide range of starring roles. I mean, she was one of the only funny things about the almost laugh-free Adam Sandler vehicle “Just Go With It.”
Katie Holmes perseveres through this ordeal with a good heart; she is someone who genuinely cares for this child and wants to help her overcome her apprehension. Meanwhile, Guy Pearce is the standard movie cynic who casually writes off everything his daughter says as yet another nail in the coffin that she is mentally insecure. But one of the biggest weaknesses I thought were the monsters themselves, who are not all that scary when we get a good look at them. For at least the first half hour, the only glimpses we get are a few fleeting and indistinct cutaways where the monsters are mostly hidden in the shadows. But once the cat is out of the bag and we see the grotesque animals in all their vertically challenged, hunchbacked, gray-pallored, naked mole rat glory, I couldn’t help but wish for something a little more threatening in appearance.
Maybe my biggest expectation going in was the fact that Guillermo del Toro’s name was attached as a producer and heavily pushed in the film’s advertising. Del Toro remains one of my all-time favorite contemporary directors with works like the Hellboy series, “Blade II,” which was a far superior sequel to the Marvel vampire hunter’s first big screen adaptation, and the transcendentally phenomenal Spanish-language fantasy drama “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which also dealt with a girl around Sally’s age. Perhaps I just put a little too much faith in hoping that this would be as good as his other works, but even when compared to other haunted house films like “Paranormal Activity” or the recent “Insidious,” this one is a little undercooked.
I read somewhere that Guillermo del Toro watched the original version when he was a young child and it supposedly inspired him from that point on to craft horror movies of his own, such as his early creations “Mimic” and “Cronos,” as well as “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark” now. Directed by newcomer Troy Nixey, this one did not do it for me like the others. But of course, all hope is not lost. This film might inspire some other children to go on and become directors themselves. And when that does happen, I will be the one crossing my fingers and hoping they will go above and beyond expectations. I would love to see the next generation’s equivalent of “Pan’s Labyrinth.”