Directed by Canadian graphic novel artist Troy Nixey, and written and produced by acclaimed Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), the new version of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is from its prologue to its conclusion a miscalculated exercise in generic genre film making. Based on a 1973 TV movie and minor cult classic of the same name, the film is a creaky, cobwebby haunted house affair about a little girl who runs afoul of some ancient magical creatures of the not-too-pleasant variety. Unfortunately, the film relies much too heavily on an overly present score and poorly conceived creature design, and as a result achieves neither the visceral scares nor the unsettling atmosphere needed to make the dark seem even the least bit worth being afraid of.
The niceties of the plot follows eight-year-old Sally (Bailee Madison; Brothers) who has been sent to live with her father (Guy Pearce; The Hurt Locker) and his new girlfriend (Katie Holmes; Batman Begins) in a Rhode Island manor that the two are restoring. Little do they know, however, that in the basement lurks ancient imp-likes creatures that call out for Sally in the night and hunger for the teeth of children. The script is filled with familiar two-dimensional characters; the curious little girl, the disbelieving parents, the grizzled groundkeeper and even the librarian with an absurdly coincidental knowledge of obscure arcane texts. Bailee Madison does a decent job in the lead role, but Holmes and Pearce — the latter of whom I am usually an enormous fan — never once seem like they’re doing anything other than reading from a script.
Del Toro’s influence is all over the film, from the obvious fairytale inspirations right down to a scene involving a Polaroid camera that was done much better in the recent Spanish horror film Julia’s Eyes, which del Toro just happened to be the Executive Producer of. But Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has none of the uniqueness of design or execution that we have come to expect of the Mexican filmmaker. Instead, his North American protégé attempts to evoke suspense and terror almost entirely via use of Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders’ score, one that intrudes into practically every scene, distracting from rather than contributing to any real sense of ambiance.
The other major issue is the creatures themselves. For the first half of the film they are confined to whispering generically, something that is meant to sound creepy but ends up just seeming silly. As un-scary as they sound, however, that is nothing compared to how these diminutive demons actually look. Think something akin to five inch pieces of snarling, scurrying snot. The mediocre digital effects used to bring them into the world doesn’t aid matters, but even the best CGI in the world couldn’t make the sight of Katie Holmes struggling to fight creatures one-fifteenth of her height anything other than laughable.
By the time the movie comes to an end, it is not a question of whether the dark is something worth being afraid of, but whether or not it will actually put you to sleep. Not in the least bit scary, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a disappointing dud.