A 1973 ABC Movie-of-the-Week that frightened Guillermo del Toro as a child was his inspiration for this sort-of remake, which has a certain hokey, old-fashioned charm but otherwise proves pretty bland in today’s horror climate.
The telefilm was a simple tale about a young couple (Kim Darby and Jim Hutton) who inherited a mansion, only to find that it was home to a bunch of goblin-like critters that aimed to take the wife into their brood. Del Toro, who co-wrote the new script, has put his own imprint on the story by making their target a child—a sad-faced young girl named Sally (Bailee Madison) sent by her uncaring mother to live with her father Alex (Guy Pearce), who, along with his young girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes), is renovating the long-uninhabited Blackwood estate, outside Providence, Rhode Island, in hopes of selling it at a profit.
Shortly after arriving at the place, Sally uncovers a hitherto-unknown basement, where the little gargoyles are waiting behind a grating, occupying a cavern that apparently descends to the very center of the earth. But soon they’re out and about, whispering to Sally, alternately enticing and threatening her. Eventually Kim and Alex are persuaded of their existence, and in time the trio is trying to survive the creatures’ onslaught and escape intact.
Even as expanded from the original telefilm, this is a pretty simple scenario. But the screenplay does give it some wrinkles. One, carried over from the 1973 picture, is the presence of Mr. Harris (Jack Thompson), the caretaker, who, in a subplot that’s never satisfactorily fleshed out, knows about the creatures and tries unsuccessfully to keep them locked up (and to protect Sally from them). His backstory is connected with a prologue dating from decades earlier showing old man Blackwood (Garry McDonald), a painter of note, waylaying his maid (Edwina Ritchard) in the basement and extracting her teeth so that he can ransom his son, who’s been carried off by the critters.
Blackwood’s gruesome action is explained later on by a librarian (James Mackay) who shows Kim some of Blackwood’s paintings, including one depicting the creatures. According to him, Blackwood’s late-in-life obsessions were tied to a legend about little demonic beings that had existed long before man and feasted on humans until a “Pope Sylvester” had reached an agreement with them to cease their attacks in return for payments in human teeth. Frankly, this attempt to tie the whole story in with the fable of the tooth fairy is likely to elicit more guffaws—or at least toothy grins—than gasps, and even if it weren’t so absurd (though it is in line with del Toro’s penchant for using ancient myth as an explanatory device), the sequence in which it’s laid out is one of the silliest bits of exposition since the psychiatrist’s monologue at the close of “Psycho.” Of course in that case Hitchcock was toying with us; here the tone is all too serious.
And yet the picture fails to offer anything beyond its scare scenario; apart from the tired element of the child with uncaring parents, it possesses none of the depth of “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” It’s just a “Boo!” movie—an elaborate Halloween trick, and nothing more.
Still, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” could have worked as a simple chiller if it were directed with greater finesse. One can only imagine what del Toro himself could have made of had he been in charge; he might have given it the mesmerizing quality of “Backbone” and “Labyrinth.” But instead he turned over the directing duties to Troy Nixey, who proves more journeyman than artist. Nixey does employ the power of suggestion in the early reels by showing the creatures only in snatches, forcing us to imagine what they might be, but after giving us a good look about halfway through, he uses them far too much. And generally while his work hits the right notes, it simply lacks the visual poetry needed to make the movie soar.
Nor are Oliver Stapleton’s cinematography, Jill Bilcock’s editing or the score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders much more than adequate, though the house provides an atmospheric setting. The same might be said of the effects. The creature design (by Chet Zar, Mike Elizalde and Keith Thompson) resembles something Harryhausen might have come up with on an off day, and once brought to life the critters aren’t appreciably more convincing than the fetish doll from the “Amelia” segment of Dan Curtis’ 1975 ABC telefilm “Trilogy of Terror”—and frankly they’re much less frightening, though they move with far more smoothly.
Among the cast, Madison is properly dour as little Sally, and she has a particularly good sequence—partly humorous, partly scary—at her father’s dinner party, when she tries to get a snapshot of the creatures and finds herself imperiled by them. But all the adults come off as stiff, with Holmes only marginally less so than Pearce, who’s really pretty dreadful here. Thompson and Julia Blake (as the housekeeper) are particularly waxen, and poorly dubbed to boot.
“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” has some effective moments—the one in which a creature emerges from under the covers of Sally’s bed is a high point. But they’re unhappily few and far between in a picture that—given del Toro’s imprimatur—is overall a disappointment.