A little girl is tormented by evil fairy critters in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, another opportunity for Guillermo del Toro to creep you out.
Co-writer of this screenplay, del Toro first used a little girl and an old house to thoroughly creep us out with Pan’s Labyrinth. That one took place against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and had a fascist stepfather to give the whole affair extra menace.
Stepparent-types don’t fair much better here. Kim (Katie Holmes) is eager to befriend Sally (Bailee Madison), the young daughter of her boyfriend Alex (Guy Pearce). Kim and Alex are currently living in a gothic mansion in Rhode Island that they are renovating with hopes of selling for a big profit. Because of some unspecified trouble with Sally’s mom out on the West Coast, Sally has been sent to live with Kim and Alex. Kim tries to win Sally over with a teddy bear and a fancily decorated bedroom, but Sally’s having none of it.
It’s in this sullen and lonely mood that she starts to hear voices calling to her. They seem to come from a heretofore undiscovered basement. Alex and Kim find the hidden door and go downstairs to check out what had been the original owner’s work space. Sally seems particularly interested in a wood-stove-looking chimney. She hears things, whispers, maybe even her name, coming from it and so unscrews the cover.
Life lesson: if a basement has been walled off and contains a grate from which whispery voices emit and which has been welded shut, maybe it’s time to seek a short sale for your money-losing scary gothic house.
Alex and Kim haven’t learned this lesson — yet — so the grate is opened and skittery little Gollum-ish creatures are soon running wild all over the house. At first (before she gets a good look at them) Sally thinks the creatures are there to play with her. But they soon show themselves — like the “real” appearance of the fairies from True Blood crossed with the Cryptkeeper from the old Tales from the Crypt show, but tiny and scampery, like rats, evil rats — and Sally freaks out. Naturally, Kim and Alex, but especially Alex, don’t believe her when she says it’s the little basement demons cutting up Kim’s dress or stealing Alex’s straight razor. But then Kim starts digging into the fate of Mr. Blackwood (Garry McDonald), the man we saw in the movie’s introductory scenes. He was seeking his lost young son and conducting some very disturbing dentistry on the maid.
Plenty of disturbed children from crummy home situations meet with supernatural problems in horror movies. But there’s something both classic and fresh about the way Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark presents the story. del Toro is very good at finding the nightmarish qualities in a scary situation and making you feel a fear that is irrational. Why are tiny, skittery creatures who are, as shown on at least two occasions in this movie, highly squishable so scary? I think it has to do with the way they’re revealed. First, Sally almost seems to will them to be there to counter her loneliness. Then they pretend to be friendly. Then they scare the pants off her. That progression, along with the fact that the creatures are really terrifying-looking, helps make the horror an interior thing as much as it is about noises in the dark.
The performances work well with this mood. Madison is not some chipper stage kid — her Sally starts off mopey and a little strange and gets darker and crazier as the movie goes on. Holmes makes Kim perpetually nervous and Pearce makes his mildly uninterested father seem just a little off. You get the sense that he’s unfamiliar enough with Sally and her likes and dislikes that he might just tuck her in and hand her one of those creepy critters instead of her doll.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is nicely focused on the terror side of the haunted house story. B-
Rated R for violence and terror. Directed by Troy Nixey with a screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins (from a teleplay by Nigel McKeand), Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is an hour and 40 minutes long and distributed by FilmDistrict.