Though a very literal adaptation of the 1973 TV movie, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark nevertheless manages to stand on its own merits as a creepy, suspenseful, squirm-inducing thriller that impressively taps into all those irrational dreads and fears that plagued us as children.
Bailee Madison gives and impressive performance as Sally, an elementary school-aged little girl sent to live with her career-driven architect father, Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new interior designer girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes) in the sprawling 19th-century Rhode Island mansion they’ve been restoring.
The home has a dark history that no one will talk about — except maybe the faint, hissing voices that only Sally hears. They come from creatures living in the dark spaces of the house, who tell Sally that they are her friends, and that her parents don’t want her but they do. Of course, what they want her for is another matter entirely.
The movie is directed by newcomer Troy Nixey, working as a proxy for Academy Award-winning fantasist and horror-meister Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone), who wrote and produced the remake. It’s saturated with Del Toro’s style and elements, from his distinct production design to imperiled young children as protagonists (the latter a fixture in his movies stemming from watching the original version of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark as a child). A former comic book artist and illustrator, Nixey shows strong directorial instincts, and his is a name to watch.
Del Toro is an established fan of Gothic and proto-horror fiction — the movie even name-checks Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood — and does a great job of channeling old-school terror via notions of insanity, helplessness, abandonment, things going bump in the night, and good old-fashioned nyctophobia. This, combined with Nixey’s knack for generating tension, really tweaks the viewer’s nerves.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark does make two key missteps by giving too much away during a flashback prologue and by showing too much of its fiendish creatures too soon, but that doesn’t keep it from getting under one’s skin. For a fright film that scored an R rating solely for “violence and terror” (though it’s largely devoid of gore) in an era of cheap visceral thrills, that speaks volumes.