By Richard von Busack
It opens with a real shocker. In the turn of the century before last, a decrepit old man in the basement of a crumbling Victorian manor takes care of his servant problem the hard way. Then he summons some vengeful spirits with a creaky cylinder recording of Irish tenor John McCormack’s “When You and I Were Young, Maggie.”
The real shocks in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark are its refusal to use the torture and smash-editing vocabulary of 2011 horror movies. It makes horror implicit and elegant.
It’s an updating of a 1973 made-for-TV movie created by the man behind the One Step Beyond TV series, featuring Kim Darby of the first True Grit as a wife in peril, and William Demarest as a caretaker.
It’s shocking, in short, how little actual violence is part of the creation of fright here, considering the R rating. The attacks are glancing blows and cat-like swipes instead of prolonged ordeals the weapons are simple household objects such as scissors and wires.
The focus of the film is the terrorizing of a little girl named Sally (Bailee Madison); no one believes her as she tells stories of the creatures she’s beginning to hear and see. On Adderall and deeply unhappy, the young Sally comes to live with her architect father Alex (Guy Pearce, with a strange Mark Wahlberg haircut) as well as his mistress Kim (Katie Holmes). Both have their money wrapped up in the restoration of the decrepit Blackwood mansion in Rhode Island. It takes some time before Alex and Kim start to believe there might be something scarier than rats in the walls.
Ms. Madison is terrific, not just as an object for menace but also as a source of pathos. A moody, round-faced child with bangs, she’s not just some casting expert’s idea of a little lady. When, by phone, she begs her mother to let her come back to California (“It’s cold here”) the effect was just as piercing as any of the stabbing scenes.
A kind of humor breaks out in the film, with the creatures playing hide and seek under a fancy dinner table, trying to retrieve an incriminating photo. (Sally has been holding them off with a blinding flashbulb equipped Polaroid camera, in homage to the still-powerful finale of Wait Until Dark).
And the reference to how these murderous creatures were supposedly tamed into a familiar children’s tale involves a reference to a Da Vinci Code piece of Catholic history. It’s confident nonsense. These little monsters, under the bed and lurking in the houseplants, are hulking yet pocket-sized imps. They’re mostly rodent, but are also clearly way out on the extremes of the primate’s family tree, with dusty fur, glowing eyes and a fear of the light.
Still, Del Toro is the producer and “presenter” here, and its newcomer Troy Nixey who actually directs. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is set in Rhode Island but filmed in Melbourne, Australia. The movie doesn’t let us think there’s a world away from the sets of this cyclopean horror-mansion.
And the intimate scenes are flat. The adult leads don’t play together well; we never getting a sense of them sharing space comfortably. Even before the bad fairies attack, Holmes looks drawn and distracted, the endearing lopsided smile dimmed a bit.
While these elves are fantasy, the anxiety of Kim and Alex’s situation is all too real. There are enough owners of underwater real estate in the audience that they’ll feel the couple’s pain. What keeps the story going is the couple’s enslavement to the house. They’re weighed down by it; it’s their all or nothing plan to escape their financial troubles, and the desperate boost Alex’s career needs. The element of financial ruin if they walk away from the hell house gives this film just that bit more of believability.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is more evidence that producer Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, etc) is rising to the quality of Val Lewton; you could double bill this with ease with Curse of the Cat People (1944). Though he’s been subject to an unusual number of thwarted projects, the malign beauty of Del Toro’s work is all in his ability to insist in the power of theatrical, stately terror.