Review: ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
Bailee Madison in 'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark' (FilmDistrict)

A lonely old mansion. A family in turmoil. An army of secretive, menacing creatures.

All the elements are in place for an atmospheric, spooky thriller, yet ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ plays out in a perfunctory manner, lacking any creative, surprising twists or genuine, bone-chilling suspense. Based on a made-for-television movie that was first broadcast in 1973, the remake is the brainchild of Guillermo del Toro, who saw the original as a child and nurtured his memories of it by retelling the story to friends.

Long in development, by the time the project finally received a green light, two years after ‘Pan’s Labyrinth,’ del Toro feared he would only be repeating himself, and so he handed the direction of the film to newcomer Troy Nixley, staying aboard as producer and making himself available as a mentor while simultaneously preparing ‘The Hobbit.’ The script by del Toro and Matthew Robbins adds a 9-year-old girl to the original story, making her the protagonist.

Sally, well-played by Bailee Madison, comes for a visit with her father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim, (Katie Holmes), only to learn that her actress mother actually sent her away to live with daddy dearest. The couple are caught up in renovating a large, isolated house, hoping to flip the place at an inflated place so Alex can start his own architectural firm. Alex is stressed out and remote, leaving Kim to try and make nice with a little girl who resents her.

A prologue establishes that the home harbors some very dark secrets, and Sally begins to uncover them when she stumbles upon the existence of a previously-unknown basement. Ignoring the warnings of groundskeeper Harris (a muted Jack Thompson), the family explores the dank, cobwebbed space, whose features include, most notably, a large furnace that attracts Sally’s curious attention. That leads to a frightening encounter with creatures of the night … and then another, and another. Naturally, Alex dismisses Sally’s cries for help. Initially skeptical, Kim tries to be as supportive of Sally as possible, but then sees evidence that Sally has legitimate reasons for concern.

Sally misses her mother, seeks help from her preoccupied father, and must settle for assistance from a would-be stepmother. So too for the new version of ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.’ The film misses its mother (the inherent limitations of the original TV movie), seeks help from its preoccupied father (del Toro, who does the best that he can in a reduced role), and must settle for assistance from a would-be stepmother (Nixey, who is well-intentioned but cannot fully replace a birth parent).

We can only lament what might have been if del Toro had been able to make the film when his creative fires were first stoked.

‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ is now playing wide across the multiplex.