Seems to me there was a fair amount of interchat about this nifty remake of a revered 1973 made-for-television movie—and most of it wasn’t flattering. “Not Del Toro enough,” was the general consensus. “Horror by numbers.” Guillermo del Toro, director and writer (he co-wrote and produced this one) of such treasured titles as The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, and the Hellboy flicks, certainly carries a weighty pedigree. But I don’t agree with conventional wisdom. To me, Are You Afraid of the Dark is textbook Del Toro: a lonely, uprooted child moves into a creepy, dangerous environment and must confront an evil presence. Any of that ring a bell?

The child in this case is Sally (Bailee Madison), a petulant and defensive kid who’s being shuffled off to live with her architect father Alex (Guy Pierce) and his girlfriend Kim (the cute-as-a-button Katie Holmes), while they fix up a sprawling baronial country estate in Rhode Island. (Sidebar: If I was a petulant and defensive child I would have wet my pants at the prospect of living in this friggin’ castle. It even has ruins! Eeeeee!)

Anyway, Sally soon becomes aware that the house is infested with mean little varmints that live in the basement who want her to “come and play with them.” However, as the introductory flashback reveals, these are murderous little folk—vicious furry anthropoids about the size of rats who carry blades, whisper dark threats, and snack on the teeth of children. They also hate light. The story builds slowly (perhaps too slowly, for some), as Alex believes his daughter has gone bonkers, while the more sympathetic Kim finds Sally’s tale has the ring of truth. And then their construction foreman turns up sliced to ribbons, to really complicate things.

While it’s true that Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark moves at a leisurely pace, I really didn’t mind, because newbie director Troy Nixey obviously stuck pretty close to Guillermo del Toro’s script (co-written with Matthew Robbins), so the mood and tension are deftly elevated, as our heroine Sally descends, a centimeter at a time, deeper into the bowels of the awful house and its fiendish inhabitants. The blood and guts are doled out judiciously, but that’s to be expected in a movie that’s more a grim fairy tale than a body count buffet. It’s also a very, very handsome film and unusually absorbing. Recommended.

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