One doesn't like to use the word "quaint" to describe a horror film, particularly if it's a horror film they're ultimately trying to recommend. But that's the word that stuck after seeing the latest Guillermo del Toro production, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark: quaint, old-fashioned, sedate, deliberate, quiet -- but also good adjectives like dark, beautiful, effective, ambiguous, creepy, and satisfying. Hardly a classic among del Toro's finest works, but it's important to remember a few things. One is that Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is based on a 1973 TV movie from ABC (so we're not exactly talking hard-edged, in-your-face, gorefest here), and the other is that Guillermo del Toro did not direct this film.
First-timer Troy Nixey directed Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, but I don't mean that as a knock. Whoever was directing traffic on this remake and approving the lights and setting up shots ... did a fine job. It's just that this flick lacks the true creativity, the novel spark, the (I'll say it) mad genius of the films directed by Guillermo del Toro himself. Hell, it's not half as good as Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage, and yet ... there's still that fanciful little streak, that intangible affection for the nostalgic fears of our collective childhood ... those facets still come through in the new film. In other words: teenagers will hate it.
The story is a simple one: young Sally (an excellent Bailee Madison) has been shipped off to live with her father (and his young girlfriend) during the restoration of a creepy, massive estate. Almost immediately upon her arrival, Sally discovers a hidden basement in which lies a bolted furnace. And deep inside that furnace, hidden somewhere beneath the old Blackwell estate, are ancient little beasts who have some malevolent plans for their new visitors. As I said: based on a TV movie.
But what's most appealing about Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is how straight-faced and earnest it is. Of course there are moments that get dark and unexpectedly violent, but (despite its stupid R rating), this is a horror film that could be enjoyed by, hell, pre-teens. A viewer may want to lower their irony-meter and try to be a little young-at-heart while approaching the flick, but the filmmakers deserve a small dose of high-praise for telling a tale of "little monsters" while keeping a mostly straight face. The diminutive hordes may remind you of Gremlins or The Spiderwick Chronicles, but the film treats the beasts like threatening little bastards.
As the distracted dad, Guy Pearce hits all the proper notes without standing out too much, and as the youthful girlfriend, Katie Holmes is, well, she's pretty reliable at playing Katie Holmes. Young Ms. Madison is the true star of the piece, and she's consistently watchable even when the flick spends a few scenes spinning it gears in the late-going. Beyond those assets, the house itself is virtually a co-star (and a disturbing one), the score is pretty much pitch-perfect for this type of "bump in the night" yarn, the special effects are quite impressive, and there's a simple sense of old-fashioned restraint that makes Sally's journey a little bit quiet, but also subtly satisfying. This is hardly the craziest or loudest horror film of the year, but I wouldn't be surprised if it keeps finding fans over the next few.