Caveat horror: Cellar! Beware!
By John DeFore
Friday, Aug 26, 2011
Augmented by just enough CGI to bring its icky gremlins to life, "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" feels retro in all the right ways; it's a bump-in-the-night tale that, if not for the occasional glimpse of a cellphone or reference to Adderall, could have been told decades ago.
Actually, it was. Screenwriters Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins adapted the script from a 1973 TV movie of the same name. The changes they made pull the tale further back, though, into the realm of fable - especially their decision to change the protagonist from an adult to a little girl: Sally (Bailee Madison, convincingly apprehensive and sullen) has been sent by her preoccupied mother to live with her father and his new girlfriend (Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes) in the grand old mansion they're renovating. (Adults being mainly an obstacle in this sort of tale, it's not inappropriate that Pearce and Holmes both offer thin performances.)
Sally doesn't want to be there but can't resist exploring. Soon she discovers a hidden basement - unsafe for little girls, an aging caretaker warns knowingly - whose rusty, bolted-up ash pit speaks to her. Scratchy, faint voices whisper to Sally, offering friendship. When her first encounter is cut short, we hear them whisper among themselves: "She'll come back. They always do . . ."
Followers of del Toro's work will see reminders of "Pan's Labyrinth" here - little girl, strange environs, enticing and perhaps magical creatures known only to her - but the storyteller is writing for another director, first-timer Troy Nixey, and keeps the action rooted in the real world. He'll save the fantastic recesses of his personal mythology for his own films, though he does eventually work old folk tales into "Dark," in thoroughly creepy ways best left for the viewer to discover.
Nixey nails the look and vibe of the tale, starting with a chilling prologue in which the house's 19th-century inhabitants do horrible things to one another. In the present-day story, scares build steadily as Nixey's camera creeps through heavy shadows that obscure the source of ratlike skittering noises. Identifying strongly with Sally, the movie is seduced by the monsters' voices - when they're speaking to her, the film's surround-sound mix makes them seem to be hiding all around us. It's inevitable that she will set the things free and that her fascination will soon turn to dread.
After milking the beasties' first few appearances for big shocks, Nixey shows us perhaps a bit too much of them; as the film moves into full-scale action mode, it's slightly less satisfying than its creepy buildup was. (And, perhaps intentionally, it relies on a couple of shameless bits of illogic.)
Even its imperfect moments, though, benefit from a literary and artistic richness most contemporary spook stories can't muster. It would be a shame if side projects like this slowed del Toro's pace in making films of his own, like the deeply personal "Pan's Labyrinth," "Cronos" and "Devil's Backbone." But the more movies he can put his stamp on, the richer horror cinema will be.
Contains mildly gory violence and terror.