Del Toro’s horror remake is nothing to be afraid of
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
1 out of 5 stars
DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK
Bailee Madison, Katie Holmes,
Guy Pearce. Rated R. 95 mins.
Now playing in wide release.
A spooky mansion. Chiaroscuro lighting. A child whisked into a world of phantasm by otherworldly creatures. Ah, the unnerving joy that was Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth — or, for that matter, The Orphanage, which he produced. Both those films where among the most frightening of the last decade. Del Toro showed a skill at tapping into something primal about children in danger that speaks to a universality about the vulnerability of youth.
If only Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark came anywhere near that.
It starts off promisingly, more than a century ago, as a scullery maid descends a dark, stone staircase into the basement of a madman, only to have her teeth chipped from her skull. It’s a harrowing scene, but nothing that follows ever
approaches it for real thrills.
Based on a cheesy 1970s TV movie that clearly kept little Memo del Toro up at night, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is basically about how the Tooth Fairy is really a coven of disgusting little rodents who terrorize children.
Sally (Bailee Madison) has been sent by her mother to live with dad (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes) in the fixer-upper Rhode Island estate they are restoring to its former grandeur. Like all movie children of divorced parents, she retreats from human contact, discovering a nest of creatures living in an ash-pit under the house.
Surprisingly, these nocturnal, fanged, batlike gremlins who whisper subversive comments to Sally (“They don’t love you! Come live with us! Don’t turn on the light!”) and shred clothes are not friendly! That’s a conceit that has never made sense in bad movie: How kids are not afraid of clear dangers like monsters lurking in the shadow, but are afraid of bearded handymen and talking stuffed animals… both of which this movie has.
Del Toro, who wrote and produced, and Troy Nixey, who directs, seem more concerned with gross-outs and the cinematic equivalent of yelling “Boo!” from behind a door than telling a sensible story. That might be acceptable if the scares were authentic, or even scary. But once we see the gremlins, they seem more laughable than terrifying: Troll dolls who can’t handle a little flashbulb. (The script relies on the use of a Polaroid camera, long since gone, for its one stab at plot development.)
Holmes turns in a better-than-it-deserves performance as a stepmom who comes to believe a raving little girl, and the house itself evokes images of Henry Miller’s Turn of the Screw. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is close to the Karen Black thriller Trilogy of Terror than serious horror. Unlike the gremlins themselves, this film lacks teeth.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 26, 2011.