Like many children of the ‘70s, Guillermo del Toro saw the TV movie, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and found himself petrified by the whispering demons that tormented Kim Darby. And so, here we are again, faced with a del Toro-produced/co-written update that evokes the era of gothic tension well without entirely dousing itself in gore or goofy effects.
Sally (Bailee Madison) is a lonely little girl, drugged up by her short-sighted mother and dragged across the country into the reluctant care of her preoccupied father, Alex (Guy Pearce), and his new girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes). They’ve moved into a grand Rhode Island estate worthy of Shirley Jackson, hoping to renovate it enough to earn the attention of Architectural Digest, and as such, Sally finds herself neglected again and lured in by the promise of attention from the mysterious voices down in the basement…
Amid the season’s Fright Nights and Shark Nights and Final Destinations, this version is a welcome alternative to the current genre offerings, steeped in old-fashioned atmosphere and faithful to the haunted house routine, albeit to a fault. Del Toro, co-writer Matthew Robbins, and first-time feature director Troy Nixey have opted to do away with cell phones and computers; in fact, the closest bid for modern technology is Kim’s knack for collecting Polaroid cameras, the flashes of which prove quite handy at simultaneously providing protection from light-phobic creatures and potentially presenting proof of their existence to certain skeptical adults (read: all of them, save for the wary handyman).
Del Toro and Robbins’ screenplay curiously incorporates established tooth-fairy lore (before spelling out the particulars of the mythos in a groan-inducing second-act library sequence -- hey, at least it’s not a mere Google search), and the creatures, though revealed a bit too early and often for their own good, are right nasty little things and a marked improvement over the dated puppetry of the original. There’s a welcome dose of Freudian implications, lending the title a more psychological reading, as Sally finds herself in an old house, but not necessarily a new home, dealing with beasts that literally rise from the depths -- not just hidden in a concealed basement, but even further beneath the house -- while Mom parties and Dad works and Kim tries her damnedest to not feel like the evil stepmother.
That gradual bonding between Kim and Sally is where Holmes’ performance is best served. It’s suggested (but not explained) that her character has had childhood trauma of her own to contend with, so her empathy and willingness to give Sally the benefit of the doubt feels dictated by character rather than circumstance. This doesn’t mean that Holmes doesn’t fall prey to laughably wide-eyed inquisition (see: the aforementioned library sequence), but in a film where Pearce’s performance is a touch too disaffected for its own good, she manages a much-needed feat of being convincingly concerned.
However, the real star of the show is Madison, pulling off a remarkably graceful mix of initial petulance, gradual curiosity, and eventual alarm. While making the lead a child this time instead of an adult, her turn doesn’t take the built-in vulnerability of a kid in peril for granted. (Darby was arguably shriller in her nocturnal encounters with the knee-high fiends than Madison is here.) The strongest case to be made for the film’s nonetheless flimsy R rating is that very endangerment of a child throughout, but our young lead prevents that angle from feeling especially exploitative or cheap.
Nixey’s penchant for establishing and maintaining a menacing atmosphere offsets the slightly slack pacing and occasionally limp performances. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark isn’t so much predictable as it is content with unfolding like a good old bedtime story, often creepy but never without a sense of fun on the part of the storyteller.