There are certain primal fears that seem to affect all of us as children: fear of the dark, fear of strange noises, fear of old houses. In the new film “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” little Sally (Bailee Madison) has to face all these fears at once when she moves into a terrifying old mansion that her clueless father Alex (Guy Pearce) is restoring as a real estate investment.
Sally’s a precocious child, popping Adderall at exactly prescribed times. Yet she is an unpredictable ball of emotions as she adjusts to the fact that her mother has just shipped her off from California to Rhode Island
to live with Alex, who’s just as distant emotionally as he’s been geographically.
Alex pays far more attention to the decrepit estate, which was the home of a famed painter named Blackwood a century before. What Alex doesn’t realize is that Blackwood went mad when his young son disappeared into a shadowy maze of secret corridors and deep pits that exist behind the walls of the house.
The son was taken by an army of rodent-like creatures that feast on human children’s teeth, a detail that cleverly mines fear out of the idea of the tooth fairy. Those very same creatures are now eager to have Sally as their next main course, something no one will believe, except Alex’s girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes), who slowly starts to realize that Sally’s descriptions are way too frequent and vivid to be false.
“Dark” is a pet project of Guillermo del Toro, a Mexican writer-director who has crafted some of the most unique horror and fantasy films of the past decade, including the Oscar-winning foreign film “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Here, del Toro serves as writer and producer, updating a classic 1973 TV movie while handing over the directing reins to Troy Nixey, who is making his feature directorial debut.
Despite the fact that the new film is frightening enough to earn an R rating, del Toro and his team have kept the project true to its roots in television, where the scary portions had to be derived from an abundance of frightening atmosphere rather than graphic and bloody effects. This version of “Dark” serves up plenty of chills and thrills, especially when the tiny creatures go on a final rampage against Sally and Kim. The actual attacks are bathed in shadows with flash cuts of weapons or teeth penetrating the humans, leaving most of the details to be mentally filled in by viewers.
Pearce, who has done much better work in the modern classics “L.A. Confidential” and “Memento,” has a largely thankless role here. Alex’s entire character is designed to be emotionally distant and filled with doubts. But Holmes steps up to the plate with her best work in years, bringing back the emotional depth she showed as a teen on TV’s “Dawson’s Creek” but seemed to lose when she married Tom Cruise and became preoccupied with being a Hollywood glamour queen.
In her attempts to forge a relationship with Sally, and then in her efforts to save the child, Holmes is motherly in her quiet moments and an ass-kicking avenger when the fit hits the shan. Teamed with Madison, who serves up a surprisingly three-dimensional performance of a damaged child who just needs an adult to believe in her, the pair forms a bond that transcends the usual bad acting and empty characterizations of modern horror films.
The acting is a perfect match for the film’s stellar production work and effects, which make the spooky house appear to be almost a living, breathing, evil entity of its own.
The only possible drawback to the film is that we never really learn where these creatures come from or what motivates them.
But, then again, when you’re a young child, the unknown is the scariest thing of all.