Katie Holmes as Kim
Bailee Madison as Sally Hirst
Guy Pearce as Alex Hirst
Jack Thompson as Mr. Harris
Julia Blake as Ms. Underhill
Alan Dale as Mr. Jacoby
Nicholas Bell as Psychiatrist
Young Sally Hirst (Bailee Madison) is about to have to deal with the worst part of being caught in the middle of a cross-country divorce and unfortunately for her, it’s not being forced to move in with her dad (Guy Pearce) and his business partner/girlfriend (Katie Holmes). It’s because the Rhode Island mansion she’s moving into has a history full of disappearing children and strange creatures that live in the dark. Creatures with a thirst for the teeth of little children…
It’s pretty obvious right from the get-go what attracted co-writer/producer Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) to remake “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” a little known television film from the 1970s. The mixtures of haunted house, fairy-tale like ‘other world’ and precocious child as the only one aware of the truth should sound eerily familiar to anyone familiar with his work.
He and writer Matthew Robbins (“Mimic”) have tried to build a character-focused suspense romp, playing up the interplay between Sally’s real-world concerns and the gradual encroachment of the ‘other’ into her life. Del Toro obviously has some experience with this sort of thing, so he should know how to make it work.
And to his credit, the filmmakers have partially succeeded. First time director Troy Nixey has built up a beautifully atmospheric film with the help of production designer Roger Ford, turning an essentially one-set film into a full world. And the character work is occasionally refreshing and original.
While Sally is understandably cool to Kim on first meeting, seeing her as a forced stand-in for her mother, del Toro and Robbins keep Kim herself falling into the old cliché about the cruel stepmother, creating an intriguing three-way relationship between Sally, Kim and obtuse father Alex. After Sally discovers a bolted grate in the basement of the mansion her father is restoring, she can’t help but open it – she doesn’t have much else to do after all. And as she desperately tries to tell her father she has accidentally let… something… out, it’s only Kim who believes her.
For all its pedigree and good ideas, though, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” can’t get its act together enough to take advantage of its plusses. The fairy-tale aspect is not well-crafted enough to make for an engaging fantasy and the suspense is not scary enough to be truly thrilling. The result is a film that is slow to build despite a brief running time, with its very slowness hiding the fact that it is ultimately not going anywhere.
The creatures are initially played up as mischievous trouble-makers, trying to keep Sally from learning what their true goal is until it’s too late. Unfortunately so long is spent doing that, by the time the turn in the plot comes, it’s a harder job than the filmmakers anticipate to make them threatening. And worse, for all of the good work done on Kim and Sally, father figure Alex is handled so badly it is hard to believe the same people wrote both characters. He is so focused on getting his restoration advertised to his fellow architects that he absolutely will not listen no matter how much Kim and Sally insist something is wrong.
All of which would probably be survivable if the ending weren’t terrible. Ill-considered, pointless and under-explained, the filmmakers have focused so much on producing a tight piece of fantasy suspense they’ve managed not to produce either.
“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” should be a better movie than it is, and at many points it seems like it will become so. But it’s all a dodge. Failed execution keeps all of the best parts of the film from coming together. It’s a perfect example of the most dispiriting of film failures, good work by good craftsmen which absolutely does not work. You won’t be afraid of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark;” you’ll be too busy pitying it.