Guillermo del Toro was 9 years old when he saw the 1973 TV movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, an experience that would help shape his adult psyche as a master craftsman in the fantasy and horror genres. Del Toro co-wrote and produced his affectionate yet ineffectual remake, but he handed the directorial reins to first-timer Troy Nixey. The finished movie still bears heavy traces of del Toro’s presence, which only makes watching it more frustrating. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark often recalls del Toro’s Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth, another story about a little girl who discovers not all monsters are make-believe. But this time, the material comes off as superficial kid’s stuff.
A big part of the problem comes in the casting. Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes — the kind of odd pairing of actors that comes only after your first and second choices have passed — are unconvincing and curiously unsympathetic as the architect Alex and his girlfriend. The unlikely couple is finishing an extensive restoration of the Blackwood Manor, a sprawling estate whose original owner disappeared.
Starting with the prologue, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark leaves no doubt there are creatures living in the basement of the mansion — creatures that have awakened with the arrival of Alex, Kim and his 9-year-old daughter Sally (Bailee Madison). The girl is the one who commands the monsters’ attention, since they feed on children’s teeth, and they are starving. Nixey and del Toro make you wait to get a good look at the tiny predators, but they are worthy of the build-up — demon-faced gnomes who may have come from another planet and are sensitive to bright lights.
Madison also fares better than her adult co-stars in making us care about what happens to her character. In the film’s best and most suspenseful sequence, one of the critters attacks Sally in bed as she’s hiding underneath her blankets. The scene is destined to haunt children’s nightmares, if they could see it: The bizarre R-rating on the film, which was granted more for overall impact and not specific adult content, will keep away audiences who would have appreciated the movie the most.
With Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, del Toro wanted all of us to feel like he did when he was 9 and seeing another incarnation of this story for the first time. But despite all the care that has been put into it, the film doesn’t transcend its dime-store horror roots. Neither scary nor original — at least to grown-ups — Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark ends up feeling like a personal obsession del Toro needed to get out of his system before he could move on.
Cast: Guy Pearce, Katie Holmes, Bailee Madison.
Director: Troy Nixey.
Screenwriters: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins.
Producers: Mark Johnson, Guillermo del Toro.
A FilmDistrictrelease. Running time: 99 minutes. Frightening images, brief violence, adult themes. Opens Friday Aug. 26 at area theaters.